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Unesco voted today at its Paris headquarters to admit Palestine as the 195th member to the organization, seriously risking the chance that the agency will lose tens of millions of dollars immediately in contributions from the United States, its biggest donor.
The agency also voted in South Sudan as the 194th member. Unesco is popularly known for its World Heritage Site preservation program as well as science education, promotion of girls’ schooling and support of press freedom.
The vote for Palestine, a contentious matter for the United Nations, tallied 107 votes for, 14 votes against and 52 abstentions. Unesco could lose its financing from the US because of American legislation from the 1990s that banned budget contributions to any UN agency that allowed Palestine to join. For Unesco that amounts to 22 percent of its current two-year budget of $643 million. In the past, when the US quit its membership from Unesco during the Reagan presidency because the agency was deemed corrupt, Unesco made up the shortfall through other country donations. Some news reports have suggested that Arab countries may fill the gap left by the US this time.
Those who joined the no vote with the US included Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Sweden and the Netherlands. Britain was one of the countries that abstained, while France voted yes.
Samir Sanbar, a writer and communicator who runs a blog called UN Forum and a former UN public information official and special representative of the UN secretary-general, said in an interview with PassBlue that Unesco now needs to keep the Palestinian membership on a cultural track rather than on a political one to further avoid controversy. As part of its new status at Unesco, for example, Palestine can register such sites as the Church of the Nativity in the World Heritage registry.
Al Jazeera reported that Palestine plans to pursue membership in other UN organizations, including the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Admission to Unesco for countries that are not members of the UN requires a recommendation by the organization’s executive board and a two-thirds majority vote in favor by the general conference of member countries who are present and voting (abstentions are not considered votes). There are no vetoes.
The general conference, which consists of member representatives, meets every two years and is attended by member countries, observers for nonmember countries, intergovernmental and nongovernmental groups and others. Each country in the general conference has one vote.
The general conference also determines the policies and main work of Unesco, including the budget. It also elects the members of the executive board and every four years appoints the director-general, who is currently Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian. Bokova, concerned about losing the US support of Unesco, visited Washington recently to discuss the possible election of Palestine to the agency and what it might mean in terms of funds. Palestine is also bidding the UN Security Council for full membership in the world body, an even larger contentious subject.
Bokova, 59, has garnered a reputation for productive stewardship of Unesco since she became the director-general in 2009, navigating some rough patches along the way, including asking the Unesco board to rescind a science prize proposed by the government of Equatorial Guinea, which is ruled by an autocrat, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. That decision is delayed until the spring.
Bokova, an eloquent woman who emanates a quiet but firm air of dignity, once served as ambassador for Bulgaria.