The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) voted to admit Palestine as a full member on Monday during a meeting in Paris (photo, from 20minutes.fr). After the vote the US government announced it cancelled its part in annual funding.
The motion was passed by a substantial majority – 173 countries took part in the vote, 107 were in favour, 14 voted against and 52 abstained – and the result was greeted by widespread applause in the chamber.
Among the countries, France, China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa voted in favour of Palestinian membership, the US, Canada and Germany voted against and the UK abstained.
“This vote will erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said after the result was announced.
Palestine has had observer status since 1974, becoming a full member means the Palestinians can register certain sites, such as the Church of the Navity, in Unesco’s World Heritage register. The vote will help to “preserve cultural heritage in Palestine”, said Mr al-Malki.
Arab states played an important role in getting the vote passed despite strong opposition from the United States and Israel.
An Israeli statement said the country would be considering further steps regarding its co-operation with Unesco
Israel described the vote as a “unilateral Palestinian manoeuvre which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement”.
“The Palestinian move at Unesco, as with similar such steps with other UN bodies, is tantamount to a rejection of the international community’s efforts to advance the peace process,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been on hold for more than a year over the issue of Israeli settlement building.
The vote is a “great achievement”, according to Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas official and the deputy foreign minister in Gaza, who added that it “shows that Israel and America are not dictating politics to the world anymore”.
“What they’re doing is developing leverage over the Americans, the Europeans, the Israelis, so these parties begin to take them more seriously,” said Mouin Rabbani, an analyst at the Institute for Palestinian Studies in Amman
Although Unesco is part of the United Nations, it has separate membership procedures and makes its own decisions about which countries can be members. Besides full UN membership is not required for membership in many UN agencies, according to AP.
Last September the Palestinians have submitted their bid for recognition to the UN Security Council, which is expected to vote next month on whether to grant them full UN membership.
The US has threatened to use its veto.
In Unesco no member has a right of veto, each representative has one vote regardless of the country’s size or budget contribution.
“Today’s vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East,” said Victoria Nuland, the US state department spokeswoman.
She told journalists in Washington : “We were to have made a $60m payment to Unesco in November and we will not be making that payment.”
A fifth of the organisation’s annual budget comes from membership dues paid by the US.
But in the 1990s the US passed a law which bars the country from giving funding to any UN body that admits the Palestinians as full members before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is achieved.
Ms Nuland added that the US administration wanted to remain an active member of Unesco and expressed concern over the loss of US influence.
She said the same scenario might unfold with other UN agencies, and that the American administration was going to consult with Congress in order to find ways to protect US interests.
In 1984 the US boycotted Unesco for nearly two decades for what the state department called a “growing disparity between US foreign policy and Unesco goals”.
If a member fails to make payments before the next general conference in two years they will remain members but will lose their voting rights, a Unesco official told the BBC. The country will have to pay a minimum amount in order to be allowed to vote at the next general conference.
The Unesco official also said that no decisions had been made on the budget yet because it has to be discussed during the conference.