Monday, November 21, 2011

Are the Inmates Running the Asylum?

I have been thinking a lot about the decision by the UNESCO General Conference to admit Palestine to membership, the campaign leading to that vote, and the aftermath. The whole scene makes me wonder if the inmates are running the asylum.

One argument made by the United States delegation against admitting Palestine to full membership in UNESCO was that so doing would be detrimental to the Israel-Palestine peace process.
  • The idea that Palestine becoming a member of an organization whose very purpose is the promotion of peace would be detrimental to the peace process seems unintuitive.
  • This is especially true since Palestine already has observer status with UNESCO, so that its representatives are present in UNESCO's deliberations and hallways, may speak, and have all the rights of a member except voting rights. As a member, Palestine will now have one among 196 votes in the General Conference. That doesn't seem much of a threat.
  • UNESCO has a budget which is less than a quarter of that of my local school board for a global program seeking to advance peace through promotion of education, science, culture and communications. How much harm could be done by Palestinian membership in such a small organization?
  • The one way that this would certainly become detrimental to the peace process would be to make a big deal of the admission. The United States delegation promptly made a big deal of the admission in the Executive Council, in the General Conference and in the aftermath of the vote.
Are the inmates running the asylum?

Another argument that the U.S. delegation used is that the decision about Palestinian membership in the United Nations family of organizations should be made in the venue of the United Nations itself. The U.S. position was that UNESCO was acting prematurely as Palestine had not been admitted to UN membership.
  • The Constitution of UNESCO is supposed to have been written in the U.S. State Department and when UNESCO was created the United States had enormous influence on its form and functions. That Constitution specifies that "states not members of the United Nations Organization may be admitted to membership of the (UNESCO) Organization, upon recommendation of the Executive Board, by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Conference." Many other specialized agencies of the United Nations family allow membership of countries that are not members of the United Nations.
  • The United States delegation to the United Nations was simultaneously vigorously seeking that the United Nations should not consider the application of Palestine for membership; it had announced that it would veto consideration of the application if it came to the UN Security Council.

Are the inmates running the asylum?

The United States, immediately following the vote announced that it would withhold all funding from UNESCO. Since the United States provides 22 percent of the assessed contributions to UNESCO in addition to making voluntary contributions to fund specific projects, this has caused a financial crisis for the UNESCO secretariat. The basis for this action is a law which "prohibits U.S. contributions to any affiliated organization of the United Nations or to the United Nations if they grant full membership as a state to a group that does not have internationally recognized attributes of statehood." Thus, the government is in the position of holding that Palestine is not a state.
  • The United States, with bipartisan agreement, supports a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; is that not in conflict with the idea that Palestine is not a state?
  • Most of the countries in the world recognize Palestine as a state. More than two thirds of the member states voting in the UNESCO General Conference voted to admit Palestine as a member state.
  • The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, which the United States has ratified and cited in supporting the application by Israel for United Nations membership,  states that "The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states." It apparently has been argued simultaneously that Palestine is not a state because its boundaries with Israel are not agreed upon, and that Israel is a state in spite of the fact that its boundaries with Palestine have not been agreed upon.
  • If boundary disputes are sufficient to deny statehood, how about the disputes among China, India and Pakistan over Kashmir? Does anyone think that they are not states? Should the United States withhold contributions to any UN organization that admits one or more states having boundary disputes?
Are the inmates running the asylum?

When the decision was announced that Palestine would be accepted as a member state:
  • The Palestinian authorities, who have still not ratified their accession document and assumed the membership that they fought for, announced that they would go on to seek membership in 16 more UN agencies, then announced that they would not do so, and then announced that they might do so.
  • The Obama administration sought membership on the UNESCO Executive Council in spite of the statement that the U.S. would withhold its contributions to UNESCO, and was elected to a four year term.
  • The Israeli government announced that it would sanction Palestine by withholding the transfer of the Palestinian taxes from the Palestinian authority; it then reversed the decision when the Israeli Defense Forces said that that transfer was necessary to Israeli security.
  • The Obama administration argued that it strongly supported UNESCO, that UNESCO programs were important to U.S. foreign policy, that cutting off voluntary contributions to UNESCO would damage U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that it would withhold both assessed and voluntary contributions from the organization.
Are the inmates running the asylum?

While the Arab League condemned the government of Syria for human rights abuses, UNESCO retains Syria on its Executive Board. It is the Executive Board that first accepted funds from Equatorial Guinea to establish a prize in the name of President Obiang, then reversed itself on the basis of Obiang's human rights record; the prize controversy won't go away. Now UNESCO is accepting a $2 million voluntary contribution from the Government of Gabon; according to Amnesty International, "Titularly a republic, Gabon's government is a centralized, autocratic presidential bureaucracy where power is distributed largely through patronage."

Are the inmates running the asylum?

The inmates from King of Hearts
p.s. King of Hearts was a very memorable film!

No comments: