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Palestine - flag flies, UNESCO cries, legality dies

By David Singer - posted Monday, 9 January 2012

UNESCO has paid a high price for hoisting the flag of "Palestine" among the 194 other flags flying at UNESCO's Paris headquarters this week. So far the price tag has been about $65 million in annual contributions outstanding by the United States and Israel to the end of December following UNESCO admitting "Palestine" as a member State on 31 October.

Worse is yet to come for UNESCO with the loss of at least $120 million in 2012-2013 - about 22% of its annual budget - and ongoing repetition of at least the same shortfall in subsequent years. The United States ceased its annual contribution to UNESCO in compliance with American domestic law. The suspension was automatic – a 1990's law blacklists funding to any UN agency that admits Palestine. Israel withheld the balance of this year's contribution to show its displeasure at the PLO's action in taking unilateral action to recognize any Palestinian State outside the face to face negotiations prescribed by the Oslo Accords and the Bush Road Map.

Are any other UNESCO member states liable to follow suit or help to make up the shortfall? Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister - John Baird - has made it crystal clear that Canada - one of UNESCO's larger donors to the tune of $10 million per annum - will not be helping to make up the shortfall - stating.

Under no circumstances will Canada cover the budgeting shortfall as a result of this decision and Canada's decided to freeze all further voluntary contributions to UNESCO. The bottom line is there's going to be a large hole in UNESCO's budget because of the American law which withdraws funding, and people at UNESCO should not look to Canada to fill that budget hole. They'll have to go to the countries who supported this resolution, that caused this budget loophole. And if they want to appeal to Canada to make even more contributions to voluntary UNESCO initiatives, we will not be looking at entertaining new ones.

UNESCO only has itself to blame for finding itself in this predicament - since the decision to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO on the affirmative votes of 107 of its members could be in clear breach of Articles II (2) and II (3) of the UNESCO Constitution - which appear to require a majority of 129 votes for any such resolution to have been passed. A strange silence has descended over UNESCO since I first raised this question with the Director UNESCO Liason Office in New York on 1 November.

Three more emails were required before I received any response - when I was eventually advised on 28 November that my inquiry was being referred to the press and media senior officer for UNESCO in New York. I thought this a strange referral. The nature of my inquiry surely should have been better dealt with by UNESCO's legal advisors. A reply was received on 30 November from UNESCO's media officer. It still failed to satisfactorily answer what was a very simple query which should have elicited an immediate and definitive response from UNESCO - did Palestine's admission to UNESCO require 107 or 129 affirmative votes?

I put that question again to the Media Officer on 1 December. On 11 December I received a formal response that she would be consulting her colleagues. She added a strange rider to her email - wanting to know for which media I was reporting. Why this would have any relevance to my request was very puzzling. Nevertheless I readily provided her with an answer on 12 December and requested an early response to my 1 December email. I am still waiting to hear from UNESCO. The longer UNESCO dithers - the more convinced I am that UNESCO has made a monumental mistake in admitting Palestine in apparent breach of the provisions of its own Constitution.

Should UNESCO be entitled to act in breach of its own Constitution and choose to studiously ignore investigating any alleged breach when drawn to its attention? Does the speed of UNESCO's response to media enquiries depend on the source of the particular media outlet making the enquiry? Does UNESCO believe the legality of its decision will be swept under the carpet if not too many people read an article on a particular web site which does not have the circulation of the New York Times or the Guardian? 87 of the 194 members of UNESCO did not vote for the admission of Palestine to UNESCO. Like Canada - UNESCO will probably find little sympathy to any request for them to donate any money to make up this massive shortfall. UNESCO programs will undoubtedly be affected or cut. It has warned that 20 of its 60 field offices may have to close.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has gone on record stating:

UNESCO is facing a difficult situation. It's a test for our organization.

That is understating what surely is a monumental and ongoing problem. A review of the legality of the decision to admit Palestine may be the answer to UNESCO's cries for member states to make up the shortfall. I have now waited patiently for eight weeks for a definitive response from UNESCO indicating this would occur. None has been forthcoming. There are at least a hundred and twenty million reasons - accumulating annually - for reviewing that decision. The financial turmoil which now surrounds UNESCO surely justifies an urgent approach to the International Court of Justice for its advisory opinion on whether Palestine's admission as a member of UNESCO has been legally made in accordance with the UNESCO Constitution. Constitutional certainty or the begging bowl? That is what UNESCO should be seriously considering without further posturing or delay.

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About the Author

David Singer is an Australian Lawyer, a Foundation Member of the International Analyst Network and Convenor of Jordan is Palestine International - an organisation calling for sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza to be allocated between Israel and Jordan as the two successor States to the Mandate for Palestine. Previous articles written by him can be found at

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