UNESCO’s 36th General Conference begins today, running from October 25th to November 10th amid intense media interest since its executive committee decided to allow a vote to grant full membership to the Palestinians. Two-thirds of members will have to approve the bid in order for it to be successful.
There have been recriminations ahead of the vote, with the United States expressing “strong opposition” to the executive committee resolution. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has intimated that the Organisation should “think again” on its “inexplicable” decision, with Kay Granger, chair of the US Subcommittee responsible for US diplomatic funding, advocating for all US funding to be cut off; some 22% of UNESCO’s resources. A New York Times piece highlights that US legislation from the 1990s mandates a complete cut of American financing to any United Nations agency that accepts the Palestinians as a full member. Pressure indeed.
There have been accusations that the vote represents an unacceptable ‘politicization’ of UNESCO. The Anti-Defamation League for example believes that “the Palestinians have unduly politicized this body”. UNESCO has been a theatre for such concerns in the past, and its 18th General Conference, held in 1974, appears as a focal point due to the passing of the ‘Israel resolutions’. The first resolution called on UNESCO to suspend all educational, scientific and cultural aid to Israel on the grounds of damage being caused by archaeological excavations in the Old City in Jerusalem. The second resolution excluded Israel from all the regional activities of UNESCO, with Arab and Eastern European countries voting against its inclusion in either the Arab or European regional blocs (much of UNESCO’s work is done on a regional basis).
This prompted a wave of international condemnation, including boycotting of UNESCO-affiliated agencies. There was a full-page advertisement in the New York Times signed by 100 intellectuals entitled ‘We Protest’, with a similar statement signed by European intellectuals in Paris including Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1975, a retaliatory boycott of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics was instigated due to the fact that it was partly funded by UNESCO. Alexis de Greiff of the National University of Colombia cites evidence that the real reason for the boycott was not against UNESCO, but because of the Centre’s close ties to developing countries responsible for imposing a ‘tyranny of the majority’. Writing from the perspective of the history of science, he explains:
“The ‘politicization’ of an international cultural institution such as UNESCO had been linked in the United States to the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Accordingly, the third world ‘and its allies’ put in jeopardy the normal course of international cooperation… For the promoters of the boycott, a ‘politically correct’ science was, thus, keeping scientific institutions neutral regarding any political conflict, meaning science should not be used to upset existing power relations in international politics.”
Yet the ‘politicization’ argument gathered pace. It should be recalled that the US formally withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, citing excessive politicization of the Organisation as one of the major factors. It did not re-join until nearly 20 years later, in October 2003, stating that the Organisation had been sufficiently reformed. A 1986 piece by Nicholas Farnham on Taking Withdrawal from UNESCO Seriously signalled the “uncomfortable ironies” of its self-imposed observer status, noting: “As a formally accredited observer, the United States presently has only two other companions – the Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Cut to the contemporary debate, and we find Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, stating in response to the decision to vote on full Palestinian membership: “The problem is that the politicization of UNESCO is detrimental to the ability of the organization to carry out its mandate”; and “It is not too late to wake up and save this organization from politicization.” This charge was dismissed by the UNESCO Director-General in 1974 in a statement entitled UNESCO and Israel – The Sudden Politicization of UNESCO? The document states: “UNESCO – just like the United Nations – is an intergovernmental organisation, and to talk about its sudden politicization is absurd.”
Indeed Alexis De Greiff observes that “the politicization issue has been part of the organization’s history”. It was conceived of as an intergovernmental organisation which would promote political consensus, rather than a nongovernmental organisation concerned only with technical knowledge. Furthermore this was the outcome of Anglo-American arguments during the UNESCO negotiations in 1945, held in London. It was opposed by the French, who wanted a more ‘intellectual’ UNESCO in line with its League of Nations predecessor, the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation. The UK and the US had concluded that an apolitical world body of luminaries on the French model would be too ineffective to deal with threats to world peace. To compensate the French, they gave them the seat of the organisation in Paris. De Greiff concludes that the Israel resolutions served to re-politicise the Organisation in line with its founding ethos, bringing it back to the activist spirit of its Constitution. Or as the Director-General wrote in 1974, “It is perfectly legitimate that the upsets and tensions – as well as the hopes – of the world today should find an echo within an international organization.”
The effects of Palestinian full membership have been discussed largely in terms of the statehood question, with a UNESCO vote considered a test case ahead of the decision at the UN. Palestine does not need to be a state member of the UN in order to be a state member of UNESCO and, crucially, sign its conventions. The potential legal consequences of this have not been explored, but UNESCO’s central role in the protection of cultural property in international humanitarian law means that Palestine, as a full member, could ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict, an instrument Israel has also ratified but has routinely failed to apply in the Occupied Territories. For example its state reports required under the 1954 Hague Convention do not include the Occupied Territories.
Furthermore Palestine could ratify the Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention which, in 1999, effectively reviewed the treaty in light of repeated failures to protect cultural property, witnessed for example in the shelling of Dubrovnik. A number of important flaws in its operation were apparent, but rather than review the entire treaty, a protocol was considered the best means of achieving reforms. Israel has not ratified this Second Protocol. It never will; there are important prohibitions on excavations in occupied territory in Article 9 which were a direct result of excavations carried out (and still being carried out) in the Old City in Jerusalem, a practice not expressly forbidden by the 1954 Hague Convention. A number of UNESCO resolutions considered these practices as violations of the convention, but they were non-binding.
The practice of archaeology in the Palestinian territories has been a source of major concern for some time. See for example this piece by the Director of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, a devastating criticism of Israeli policies in terms of archaeological protections in the occupied territories (where they govern over 70% of archaeological activity), including the fostering of malpractice which has resulted in large-scale looting. Israel is entitled to rebut such criticisms; but the reality is that the Palestinians have little control over their own cultural property. This cannot continue.
It would be a major progression if Palestinians became responsible for their own cultural property under UNESCO international rules. The vote will provoke much debate, but the politicisation argument is as weak as it ever was. Meanwhile cuts to funding, state withdrawal or boycotts should be anticipated if Palestine is granted full membership. There is no credible reason it shouldn’t be.