UNESCO Grants Palestine Full Member State Status

PARIS, France, October 31, 2011 (ENS) – The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, today voted to admit Palestine as a full member of the agency. As the only UN specialized agency with a specific mandate to promote science, UNESCO hosts many environmental functions.

UNESCO’s General Conference, the agency’s highest ruling body, took the decision by a vote of 107 in favor to 14 against, with 52 abstentions, UNESCO said in a statement.

The move brings the total number of UNESCO Member States to 195.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki, said, “This vote will help erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people,” and will help protect world heritage sites in Israeli-occupied territory.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki at the UNESCO General Conference, October 31, 2011 (Photo courtesy UNESCO)

For its membership to take effect, Palestine must sign and ratify UNESCO’s constitution, which is open for signature in the archives of the Government of the United Kingdom in London.

Admission to UNESCO for States that are not members of the United Nations, as Palestine is not, requires a recommendation by the agency’s Executive Board and a two-thirds majority vote in favor by the General Conference.

Palestine’s application to become a UN Member State was submitted to the United Nations by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on September 23.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent the application to the UN Security Council for its consideration. Any application for UN membership is considered by the Council, which decides whether or not to recommend admission to the 193-member General Assembly, which then has to adopt a resolution for the admission of a Member State. The application has been referring to a committee of the Security Council.

The United States has indicated that it would veto the Palestinian application for admission.

UNESCO’s General Conference approved full membership for Palestine despite a threat from the United States to withhold roughly $80 million in annual funding to UNESCO if it approved Palestinian membership, approximately 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget.

U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO David Killion said today in Paris, “We recognize that this action today will complicate our ability to support UNESCO’s programs. There are other ways of promoting the cause of the Palestinian people that would not have involved seeking premature membership at UNESCO. We sincerely regret that the strenous and well-intentioned efforts of many delegations to avoid this result fell short.”

David Killion, U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, October 31, 2011 (Photo courtesy U.S. State Dept.)

“The United States has been very clear about the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Killion. “But the only path to the Palestinian state that we all seek is through direct negotiations. There are no short cuts and we believe efforts such as the one we have witnessed today are counter-productive.”

In September, members of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet – the UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States – reiterated appeals to the Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct bilateral negotiations without delays or preconditions.

The Quartet proposed a series of steps and a timetable with the aim of reaching a lasting Middle East peace agreement by the end of 2012.

UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.

UNESCO’s many environmental functions are managed through its Natural Sciences Sector, which implements major international programs in the freshwater, marine, ecological, earth and basic sciences. Emphasis is given to developing countries, and to natural disaster prevention.

Programs are designed to respond to climate change, gender equality, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty, in particular in small island developing states.

UNESCO’s International Science Programs include: the International Hydrological Program, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the Man and the Biosphere Program, the International Geosciences Program and the International Basic Sciences Program.

Palestinian child gets drinking water in Susiya Village, West Bank (Photo credit unknown)

UNESCO also maintains a network of associated centers in the fields of water, renewable energy, science policy, biotechnology and the geosciences.

The agency hosts World Water Day each March 22, an issue of enormous importance to the Palestinian Authority.

The UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands has developed a wide range of activities to promote sustainable urban water management solutions. UNESCO supports the principle of “integrated urban water management” which actually takes into account the diverse water uses and dimensions of urban living.

Through the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Palestinian officials are already working on World Heritage activities. On October 14, 2010, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova convened Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian experts for a “brainstorming meeting” to reactivate the UNESCO Action Plan for the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Wall.

Palestinians were represented by Hamdan Taha, director of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage; and Nazmi Al-Jubeh of Birzeit University.

As yet, there are no places in Palestinian territory on the World Heritage List.

In 2010, the UNESCO Executive Board adopted several decisions concerning UNESCO’s work in the occupied Palestinian and Arab Territories.

Palestinian Muslims pray as they are watched by Israeli border guards close to the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem, February 2007. (Photo by crazymaq)

They included a vote to “reaffirm the religious significance of the Old City of Jerusalem for Muslims, Christians and Jews. The decision expresses “deep concern over the ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, which contradicts UNESCO decisions and conventions and United Nations and Security Council resolutions.”

Concerning the Palestinian sites of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the board voted to reaffirm that the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions. In February 2010, the government of Israel designated the two shrines as Israeli national heritage sites.

On the reconstruction and development of Gaza, the board voted in favor of a decision that “deplores” the continuous blockade on the Gaza Strip, which “harmfully affects the free and sustained movement of personnel and humanitarian relief items.”

In 1999, Elishia’s Park, owned by the Jericho Municipality, Palestinian Autonomous Territories, was awarded the Melina Mercouri International Prize (UNESCO-Greece). The prize rewards outstanding examples of action to safeguard and enhance the world’s major cultural landscapes.

Elishia’s Park is an oasis landscape grouped around the spring that gives the park its name. It is also called Elisee’s Spring and Ain El-Sultan. Orchards, palm groves, banana plantations and many tropical plants populate this green area in the heart of the Judean desert. The site is dominated by the Mount of Temptation, where Christ is said to have battled with the Devil for 40 days. It overlooks the ruins of Jericho, the first historical fortified city whose destruction is told in the Bible.

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