UNESCO's activism on Palestine
It's a sounding board for world's conscience
by S. Nihal Singh
IT is a curious fact that UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organisation, has repeatedly emerged as the bellwether of the UN system, rather than its august and powerful Security Council. In granting the Palestinians full membership, the first UN agency to do so, it has shown yet again that it is more in tune with the world's aspirations than other organs.
It is even curiouser that UNESCO cannot discharge one of its two main briefs, of giving the world intellectual leadership, by the simple fact that there cannot be any honest intellectual debate by delegates representing their governments in an ever-expanding United Nations. Each delegate seeks to score points or watch his backside in the less than glorious traditions of free speech their countries represent. UNESCO executive board members became the direct representatives of their governments only in 1954.
Indeed, UNESCO has been engaged with the question of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land over many years. Although the UN General Assembly decreed that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" in 1975, the first move against Israel's part in the UN system was made by UNESCO at least one year earlier. In the Paris conference of 1974, the Arabs spearheaded three resolutions which were passed, including a condemnation of Israel for "its persistence in altering the historical features of the City of Jerusalem and undertaking excavations which constitute a danger to its monuments, subsequent to the illegal occupation of this city". American retribution was swift in the form of withholding contributions to UNESCO under a Congressional injunction.
In 1976, there emerged the most controversial debates in UNESCO on the New World Information Order, an issue of much heat and rhetoric under the director-generalship of the Senegalese Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow. In a sense, the US and the African countries in particular were arguing at cross-purposes. It merged in the American mind with a process of strangling free media with government-aided projects while the priority in the minds of the developing world was in gathering the wherewithal to receive support in new technology and the basics of journalism.
Once the liberal establishment in the US, UNESCO's predominant constituency, had convinced itself of what it viewed as an attack on free media, the die was cast. America gave notice of withdrawal from the agency and left at the end of 1984, depriving it of essential funds, slavishly followed by Britain and opportunistically by tiny Singapore. But the US government had a wider agenda. It was to make an example of UNESCO in the UN system. It was testing new ideas on weighted voting, later to be taken up in the parent United Nations, and to reassert a leadership role in multilateral fora.
I had then asked a US delegate to UNESCO why his government was picking on UNESCO, called the weakest link in the UN system. His answer was sharp: "What is wrong in picking on the weakest link?"
This time the Palestinian issue has deprived UNESCO of 22 per cent of its budget, the US share; Israel retaliated with withholding its 3 per cent contribution. The United States is hoping that it would not have to use its veto in the Security Council yet again to save Israel because intense lobbying will probably prevent the Palestine resolution from receiving the needed nine votes. Later, when the issue comes to the UN General Assembly, it will find overwhelming approval, giving Palestinians an upgrade in status falling short of full membership.
The voting figures in UNESCO were striking: 114 for, 14 against, 52 abstentions and 21 absentees. America's Pavlovian response to granting Palestinian rights is as understandable as it is indefensible: the American-Israeli lobby exercises a vice-like grip on the US political establishment whoever the President may be.
But UNESCO's activism on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has come at a cost. The anti-Israel resolutions of 1974 led to a boycott by Ionesco, Sartre and Iris Murdoch, among others. Today it would be difficult to find a person of world eminence on the executive board. As a Western ambassador told me in the early 1980s, "We, in the conference and the executive board, are civil servants trying to do our job. But there isn't one notable intellectual – writer, painter or thinker – amongst us. And take the secretariat. M'Bow is not an intellectual…"
Incapable of achieving its intellectual mission, UNESCO does serve a purpose as a sounding board for the world's conscience. While the US and other major powers are quibbling over minutiae on the rights and wrongs of particular moves while Israel triumphantly gobbles up more and more of occupied Palestinian land on the West Bank and in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, there is one UN agency that raises a finger for the Palestinian cause.
In real terms, Palestinians' full membership of UNESCO might not amount to much, but it does make a moral point. And in a world in which realpolitik often triumphs over injustice, there is at least one UN agency that has made a statement. The UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, is left with the problem of cutting the agency's programmes, given the loss of US contribution, but in an unintended sense, while UNESCO cannot surmount its deficiencies as an intellectual organisation, it can still say 'no' to American-supported Israeli power. In a sad footnote, Germany voted against the resolution, teaming up with the United States.
It is well to recall the fervour of the plenary meeting of November 16, 1945. The opening preambular paragraph of UNESCO's constitution says, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed". Paragraph 1 of Article I began with the statement: "The purpose of the organisation is to contribute to peace and security…" Not all were equally enthusiastic. Leon Blum said, "The war (World War II) that has just ended…has shown us how education, culture (in the strictest sense) and science itself may be distorted against the common interests of humanity."
S. Nihal Singh, a senior journalist, is the author of a study, "The Rise and Fall of UNESCO".