31 Oktober 2011

U.N. agency approves full Palestinian membership

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made a bid for the U.N. to recognize a Palestinian state last month

UNESCO voted Monday to accept a Palestinian bid for full membership, in the first vote on the matter by U.N. agency.

The vote, which required two-thirds approval, passed with 107 votes in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions.

The vote is separate from the Palestinian bid for full membership in the United Nations. Representatives of several countries pointed out that currently that bid is being discussed by members of the U.N. Security Council.

Huge applause broke out at UNESCO's meeting in Paris when the results of the vote were announced.

The vote risks the agency -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- losing its U.S. funding, which accounts for more than a fifth of its budget.

Some U.S. lawmakers have threatened to cut off the funding, which a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to UNESCO said totals $80 million a year .

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, speaking after the vote, said she is concerned for the financial stability of the organization.

"I believe it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure that UNESCO does not suffer unduly," she said, specifically citing concerns about losing funding from "our largest contributor, the United States."

Bokova said the "admission of a new member state is a mark of respect and confidence."

"This is a significant victory and sends a clear message to those who are trying to hold history and deny the rights of Palestinians that there are a majority of nations with conscience who refuse to be intimidated and blackmailed," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, speaking by phone from Ramallah, in the West Bank.

"The ones who voted negatively are isolating themselves along with Israel on the wrong side of justice and the law. And if the U.S. continues to threaten to boycott or withdrawal from organizations that recognizes Palestine it might find itself outside most global institutions with diminishing influence and standing," she said.

The Israeli representative, addressing the meeting after the vote, called the decision "a tragedy for UNESCO" and "a great disservice to international law."

UNESCO has now "adopted the science fiction version of reality by admitting a non-existent state to the science organization," he said.

The U.S. representative said the United States, which voted against the measure, "cannot accept the premature admission" of Palestine into the organization.

"Despite the challenges ahead we pledge to continue our efforts to find ways to support and strengthen the vital work of this organization," he said. He did not say what could happen to U.S. funding for UNESCO.

The Pakistani representative called the decision "momentous."

"For over six decades, Palestinians have proven to be superb human beings but have regrettably remained without their rights," she said, adding that "today this wrong has been righted."

She referred to the longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an "inimitable hero."

The representative from Sri Lanka said that with its vote, UNESCO "acted precisely as the conscience of the world community."

"I think that by showing Palestine's independence is an idea whose time has come and that this has brought recognition in the world community, we have in fact bolstered all the efforts which with respect towards a negotiated peace and towards the recognition that is sought in the Security Council," he said.

Earlier, as the vote was under way, applause broke out after some countries voted in favor of the bid.
There was laughter in the room after Israel voted no.

In September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas launched the bid for the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state. UNESCO is the first agency the Palestinians have sought to join.

Since Palestinian leaders made the request for membership in UNESCO earlier this month, U.S. lawmakers have urged the agency to reject it.

UNESCO promotes peace through educational, scientific and cultural collaboration among states, and 22% of its funding in its regular budget comes from the United States, said Sue Williams of UNESCO's press office.

"Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but (it) would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO," said an October 13 letter signed by members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, which appropriates UNESCO's U.S. funding.

Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chairs the subcommittee, said she will "advocate for all funding to be cut off."

"This is consistent with current law, and I will consider additional actions as needed," she said this month. "There are consequences for short-cutting the process, not only for the Palestinians, but for our longstanding relationship with the United Nations."

She was referring to a provision of U.S. code which states: "No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states."

Abbas' bid for statehood to the United Nations is also opposed by Israel, which says it is premature without direct talks that address its longstanding security concerns.


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