Sunday, November 6, 2011

Caricom division on Palestine in UNESCO


Jamaica and T&T among five abstentions in historic vote

LAST Monday when history was created with an overwhelming vote to admit Palestine as a full member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), there was division among member states of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) with five — among them Jamaica — abstaining.

Since this was a momentous decision by the General Assembly in the 53-year history of UNESCO -- a virtual household name in all regions of the world, and consistent with the Palestinian Authority's courageous quest to secure statehood status at the UN -- governments of Caricom that opted to abstain perhaps have a moral obligation to explain to their respective jurisdictions why they chose such a political route.

This seems all the more necessary, given the frequently stated commitment of Caricom countries to the Palestinian Authority's Herculean international campaign for statehood status, with sovereign territorial borders alongside Israel.

Having secured overwhelming endorsement at the recent UN General Assembly for its status as a full member — a matter that is expected to come before the UN Security Council later this month, possibly in a week's time — it was logical that the Palestinian Authority would have intensified efforts to gain maximum international support in seeking membership of the 16 UN agencies.

It chose UNESCO as the first hurdle, in the face of aggressive warnings from the Obama administration as well as retaliatory threats from Israel, but went ahead.

More UN agencies

Now, with membership status in UNESCO, and in the face of Washington's likely resort to using its veto weapon in the Security Council to frustrate its strategy to become a full UN member state with voting rights, the Palestinian Authority has already signalled its intention to access membership in all other UN agencies.

These would include specialised agencies such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); the World Health Organisation (WHO); and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

A question of relevance is that, since prior UN membership as a sovereign state was not a requirement to secure admission to UNESCO, why did the five Caricom countries choose to abstain rather than be counted among the affirmative votes?

President Barack Obama's administration and, not surprisingly, the Israeli Government, reacted swiftly in demonstrating their opposition. Washington announced the immediate suspension of its estimated US$60 million annual funding to UNESCO, while Israel lost no time in responding with plans to engage in further illegal construction of "settler homes" in Palestinian territory.

Within 24 hours of the admission of Palestine as a UNESCO member, the Obama administration was again talking about recourse to its veto weapon in the Security Council to block Palestine's statehood membership bid, which was already massively approved by the UN General Assembly.

How they voted

As reported by international news agencies, thunderous applause erupted when it was announced on Monday that of 173 countries that participated in the historic UNESCO decision, 107 voted in favour of Palestine's membership; 14 against and 52 abstained.

Among the Caribbean countries that endorsed the historic decision were Belize, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Grenada, Suriname, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

The USA had the company of Canada and Panama in voting against, while five Caricom countries — The Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago — abstained. Antigua and Barbuda and Guyana were absent.

However, while the USA and Israel are continuing their diplomatic lobbying efforts to frustrate the Security Council vote, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Guyana, Suriname, St Vincent and the Grenadines have already officially recognised Palestinian statehood.

Other Western Hemisphere nations that voted in favour of Palestine's membership in UNESCO were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The United States' annual funding of approximately US$60 million, represents about a quarter of UNESCO's annual budget and it would be of much interest to learn that since the nations in the Middle East enthusiastically voted for Palestine's membership in that body, they -- particularly the oil-rich ones -- would now be disposed to help UNESCO in overcoming its coming budget deficit problem.

Funding concerns

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in expressing his concerns about threatened loss of financial support for UNESCO by retaliatory measures (mostly from USA, but also including voluntary contributions from Canada), said it was the responsibility of all of the UN's 193 member states "to ensure that all the agencies receive political and financial support".

Washington's quick suspension of further financial support for UNESCO is located in a 1990 decision by the US Congress -- that was largely influenced by pro-Israeli representatives -- authorising the State Department to prohibit funding the UN "or any specialised agency thereof, which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) the same standing as a member state".

Further, by 1994, the US Congress voted to ban funding to "any affiliated organisation of the UN which grants full membership as a state to any organisation or group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood".

Therein lies the hurdle that President Obama needs to overcome to give effect to his own claimed commitment to a two-state solution to the age-old Israel/Palestine conflict. To date, successive Washington administrations have anchored themselves in rationalisations of support for Israel while engaging in promising gestures towards the Palestinian people.

Questions of immediate relevance, therefore, are: First, will the oil-rich Arab states that voted for Palestine's UNESCO membership now step up to the plate to help meet the agency's budget deficit?

Secondly, does any or all of the five Caricom countries that surprisingly chose to abstain from the vote feel any obligation to offer a public explanation, considering, for a start, that even nations deeply beholden to Washington — like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait as well as the "new" post-Gadhafi regime in Libya — voted in favour?

Let's wait and see!!

November 06, 2011