Self-inflicted wound – The US and UNESCO

Oct 17,2017 – JORDAN TIMES – Osama Al Sharif

It would be naïve to believe that the US decision to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) will not hurt the Paris-based UN body.

Washington is a major financial contributor to UNESCO’s budget, about 22 per cent, and pulling out will affect the financing of the organisation’s important projects around the world.

The US owes about $550 million in arrears and the decision to withdraw raises questions about the ability of UNESCO to overcome chronic financial challenges.

But while owing money to the organisation is thought to be one reason for the US move, the pretext that the US State Department and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley cited was the group’s alleged anti-Israel bias.

Ironically, two days after the US announcement was made, members of UNESCO elected the first Jewish president in the history of the organisation.

The decision, which will take effect at the end of 2018, marks the third time that the US had left UNESCO or suspended its membership. The first was at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, when the US complained about Moscow’s influence over the group and its criticism of Israel. The second was in 2011 when the US withdrew to protest the acceptance of the state of Palestine as a member of the organisation.

This time, the US has played the Israel card again.

Haley had condemned UNESCO for adopting a resolution last July that recognised the old city of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage site in danger, a move that enraged the far-right Israeli government. And more recently, the organisation’s executive council reiterated its commitment to a 2015 resolution that condemns “Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site, Al Aqsa Mosque” and “firmly deplores the continuous storming” of the mosque compound by “Israeli right-wing extremists and uniformed forces”.

The resolutions were proposed jointly by Jordan and Palestine.

The US decision had surprised even the Israelis, who were not told of Washington’s intention. Subsequently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US move and ordered his foreign ministry to make preparations for an Israeli exit.

The contrast between American and Israeli departures from UNESCO is overwhelming.

Aside from its financial contributions, the US is a major backer of the organisation’s education, gender equality, development and literacy programmes, especially in conflict-ridden areas such as Afghanistan and African Sahara where religious extremism has become dominant.

Other areas include promotion of human rights and undercutting the smuggling of cultural treasures.

The isolationist stance of the current administration notwithstanding, the US has always been supportive of programmes that enshrined equality, co-existence and cultural exchange. The US stands to lose leverage in these areas as it walks away.

On the other hand, Israel’s presence in the organisation presented moral and political challenges, as well as embarrassments.

As an occupation force, Israeli policies defy the basic tenets of UNESCO.

The UN organisation could not ignore the fact that Israel was on a mission to hijack and then erase Palestinian cultural heritage and turn its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories into a dispute over land and places of worship holy to Muslims and Christians.

The UN and other international organisations became the only possible fora for disenfranchised Palestinians, where they could plead their case.

The fact of the matter is that US bias in favour of Israel, more so now than any time before, has blinded American officials from recognising the legitimate cause of the Palestinian people.

The fact that UNESCO members have overwhelmingly embraced the Palestinians and defended their rights put the US and Israel on the wrong side of history.

It is sad that America’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO is grounded in an ideological and unapologetic bias towards a state that is guilty of practising discrimination, adopting racist laws and committing human rights violations against people under occupation.

Unconditional pro-Israel stances will trigger other confrontations between the US and international bodies.

In the absence of a genuine and meaningful peace process that would put an end to decades of unlawful occupation, the Palestinians have nowhere to go but to international bodies.

How far is Washington willing to go in punishing such bodies for siding with international law and UN resolutions?

Israel remains the only country that finds itself in brazen defiance of UN Security Council resolutions relating to its occupation of Palestinian territories.

It has avoided sanctions because the US has provided it with protection, which emboldened Israeli leaders and encouraged them to expropriate what remains of Palestinian lands and encroach on their religious sites.

It is disheartening that a great country such as the United States, with its Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, now finds itself outside the community of nations alongside Israel. But its exit from UNESCO can only be seen as a self-inflicted wound.

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Categories: America, United Nations, United States

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