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Unesco Admits Palestinian Authority As Full Member, Placing US Funding In Doubt

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Unesco has become the first United Nations agency to accept a Palestinian bid for full membership.

The General Conference vote at the agency's Paris headquarters passed with more than the required two-thirds majority, with 107 voting in favour, 14 against and 52 abstaining.

Palestine will be admitted as the 195th member of Unesco, with status as "an observer entity".

Israel voted against the measure, along with the United States, Canada and Germany. France voted in favour, while the UK abstained.

Applause broke out in the room when the result was announced, according to press reports.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was the first agency the Palestinian leadership attempted to join after launching its bid for statehood in September. It will now join the agency once it signs and ratifies its constitution.

"This vote will erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told the Unesco meeting in Paris.

The vote will place the agency's budget in immediate jeopardy, as under legislation dating back 15 years the United States is obliged to cut off its funding to any agency that accepts Palestine as a full member.

The US contributes around 22% of the agency's funding, or $80m a year, out of a total two-year budget of $643 million for 2010-11 and a projected budget of $653 million for 2012-13.

David T. Killion, the American ambassador, said that the United States “remains deeply committed” to Unesco but said the vote “will complicate our ability to support (it).”

Killion added the US will attempt to support Unesco through other means, but did not stipulate what those would be.

In a 13 October letter members of the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations said: "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardise the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but (it) would endanger the United States' contribution to UNESCO."

Republican Representative Kay Granger, who chairs the subcommittee, said she will "advocate for all funding to be cut off" following the vote.

"This is consistent with current law, and I will consider additional actions as needed," she said earlier this month.

Granger referred to a provision of US code which states: "No funds authorised to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialised agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as member states."

Israel has opposed the move, claiming that the Palestinian authority is not ready for statehood. It also raised the prospect of Israel withdrawing from Unesco completely.

In a statement the Israeli foreign ministry said:

"Following the decision to accept Palestine as a regular member of UNESCO, the State of Israel will consider its further steps on ongoing cooperation with the organisation."

Israel's ambassador to the agency Nimrod Barkan told Reuters that Unesco was out of its depth.

"Unesco deals in science, not science fiction," he reportedly said. "They forced on Unesco a political subject out of its competence."

Nimrod Barkan, the Israeli representative to UNESCO, called the vote "tragic for the idea of UNESCO".

Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas official and the deputy foreign minister in Gaza, called it a "great achievement" and said the vote "shows that Israel and America are not dictating politics to the world anymore".

Mouin Rabbani, an analyst at the Institute for Palestinian Studies in Amman, said the vote would make it harder for those countries to successfully oppose Palestinian efforts for recognition.

"What they're doing is developing leverage over the Americans, the Europeans, the Israelis, so these parties begin to take them more seriously," Rabbani said.

"It's good news. It's another step in the right direction," said Husam Zomlot, a PLO member and former ambassador. 

"We're marching towards full status in the international system. UNESCO is a very important organisation."

The vote will almost certainly trigger a US law, passed in 1990, which bars the US from funding any UN agency "which accords the Palestine Liberation Organisation the same standing as member states".