Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Australia Can Rescue UNESCO From Palestine Decision

The writer urges his country's government to press UNESCO to review the adequacy of the vote to admit Palestine to UNESCO - and to approach other member States to do likewise - for the sake of those who need its aid.
Published: Friday, March 30, 2012 3:47 PM



Australia’s new Foreign Minister - Bob Carr - needs to urgently review the decision adopted by the Australian National Commission for UNESCO (ANCUNESCO) - that the admission of Palestine as UNESCO's 195th member State was consistent with UNESCO‘s Constitution and its Rules of Procedure .

Only 107 of UNESCO’s 194 member states voted in favour of the resolution to admit Palestine on 31 October 2011. Australia was one of 14 countries that voted against - whilst 52 abstained and another 21  were absent from the vote including some who were ineligible to vote due to unpaid membership fees.

The consequences of that vote  have been catastrophic for UNESCO - and for scores of millions of people around the world dependent on UNESCO’s planned programs during 2012-2013. 

22% of UNESCO’s  budget has been lost as a result of America immediately suspending payment of membership dues totalling $260 million to the end of 2013 - because of a 20 years old American domestic law mandating such action.

Staff retrenchments are growing and global programs over the next two years - such as literacy, gender equality, water purification, AIDS and HIV prevention - will have to be abandoned or curtailed - unless America resumes its payments or alternative sources of funding are found. 

An Emergency Donor Fund set up by UNESCO has not been very successful - with only about $42 million being raised or pledged in the last four months - much of it to be used to alleviate suffering among the populations in the donor or adjacent countries - rather than universally. 

In its latest move to get the American funding back - UNESCO will soon be opening an office in Washington to lobby Congress to amend the law so as to enable the American tap to be turned on again.

Such lobbying is extremely unlikely to succeed - since the chances of Congress backing away from the law mandating the suspension of funds to any United Nations Agency that  accepts the PLO as a full member - outside of negotiations with Israel - is doomed to failure.

Those 107 states who voted to admit Palestine were warned by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bukova of the risk of losing the American funding before they cast their votes. Defiantly ignoring her unambiguous message was both irresponsible and reckless and has caused UNESCO to create its own self induced financial and humanitarian crisis.

Australia’s Head of Mission - Ms Gita Kamath - gave the assembled delegates the following reasons for Australia‘s negative vote:

"Our decision to vote against reflects Australia’s strong concern that consideration of Palestinian membership in UNESCO is premature. The matter of Palestinian membership of the UN has recently been placed before the UN Security Council for its consideration. We should allow the United Nations Security Council process to run its course rather than seek first to address this question in different UN fora.

Our decision also reflects our concerns with the possible implications of a successful vote on UNESCO funding.”

The decision to admit Palestine is open to possible legal challenge for two reasons:

Only states can be admitted to UNESCO and Palestine is not a state,
The number of votes required to admit Palestine is 129 - not the 107 received

After initially receiving an irrelevant response from UNESCO and no answer to a detailed submission made by me on the voting requirements of the Constitution - I then wrote to Ms Kamath on 15 January  - urging her to press UNESCO to review the adequacy of the vote to admit Palestine to UNESCO - and to approach other member States to do likewise.

Ms Kamath’s initial response was identical to UNESCO’s first response to me..

Undeterred - I then sent Ms Kamath the detailed submission I had given UNESCO.  Like UNESCO - neither she nor ANCUNESCO has been prepared to discuss the merits of that submission.

Australia’s former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister - Kevin Rudd - had been actively seeking support for Australia to gain a seat on the UN Security Council. Perhaps he believed that taking a lead role to get UNESCO out of its current woes by promoting Court action that could see Palestine being possibly removed from UNESCO - could have seriously dealt a fatal blow to Australia’s chances of securing that Security Council seat.

There seems to be no other explanation for ANCUNESCO refusing to even consider my submission.

Hopefully Bob Carr will place the looming global humanitarian crisis above the quest for a seat on the UN Security Council. He should take a lead role in getting UNESCO to approach the International Court - as the quickest and best means of restoring the lost American funding.

Australia is perfectly positioned to lobby UNESCO member states to grab this legal lifebelt.

Australia’s support for the creation of a Palestinian State has been long standing - as Ms Kamath  pointed out at the time of the Palestine vote:

“Australia strongly supports the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their own state and believes a negotiated peace process between the parties is the way to achieve this….

Australia has been a consistent supporter of the peace process. We have provided extensive support and committed to over $300 million in humanitarian and development assistance in the next five years building up the institutions of a future Palestinian state.”

Had the delegates from the 107 pro-Palestine voting states followed Australia’s lead  - UNESCO would not be in the sorry position it is today.

If Australia continues to sit pat on its heels - it will be just as responsible for UNESCO’s ongoing problems as those whose votes have put UNESCO in this bind,

Those 87 countries that declined to vote for  Palestine’s admission - for whatever reason - should be readily amenable to an approach by Australia to join in urging UNESCO to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court on the legality of its decision to admit Palestine.

Whilst these countries can rightly claim to not be blamed for the black hole UNESCO has fallen into because of the intemperate action of 107 of their fellow member states - they cannot also afford to sit back and do nothing to rectify a decision which could be in breach of UNESCO’s Constitution -  especially given the global humanitarian problems it has created.

Bob Carr - the former Premier of New South Wales - was parachuted into the role of Australia’s Foreign Minister from political retirement in the space of a few days.

He seems the perfect choice to lobby member States to get UNESCO to beat a path to the International Court.

If Australia is too timid to act - other naysayer countries like Canada, America, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway or Germany should take up the lead role to save UNESCO from itself.

Someone needs to act quickly as the global humanitarian crisis adds more victims every day.