Palestinians Eye Membership in Other UN Agencies After Success With UNESCO

Patrick Goodenough | November 1, 2011 | 4:37am EDT
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Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki addresses UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris on Monday Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

( – Monday’s vote by the United Nations’ cultural agency to admit “Palestine” looks set to break a logjam that will see a raft of other U.N. agencies follow suit – and risk losing U.S. funding in the process.

The U.S. government quickly announced it was cutting funding to the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after its General Conference voted in favor of the Palestinian application for full membership – the first U.N. agency to do so.

The funding cut is mandated by legislation from the 1990s that denies U.S. funding to any U.N. agency “which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

The size of the vote in favor provides a good indication of the reception the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) application can expect at other agencies.

In the UNESCO vote, the measure needed a two-thirds majority to pass. With 173 members of the total 194 voting on the day, the required threshold was 81 votes. The bid received 107, with only 14 countries opposed, and another 52 abstaining.

Joining the U.S. in voting “no” were Canada, Australia, Israel, Panama, five European Union members – Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden – and the Pacific island nations of Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Particularly gratifying for the P.A. – and galling for the U.S. and Israel – was the fact that 11 E.U. members voted for the motion (the remaining 11 abstained). The E.U. “yes” votes came from Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Spain.

Asked whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had undertaken any personal diplomacy ahead of the vote, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she “has been making the case personally against this move in the U.N. agencies for weeks and weeks and weeks, and she had many, many conversations about this, particularly when we were in New York [in September ].”

“This is only the beginning,” predicted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The Palestinians will now seek full membership in other U.N. bodies.”

Ros-Lehtinen, who called the UNESCO vote “reckless” and “anti-peace,” will host a briefing for lawmakers on Thursday entitled, “How to Stop the Palestinian Statehood Scheme at the U.N.: UNESCO and Beyond.”

‘Serious implications for U.S. leadership’

Nuland said the administration was “making the point directly to the Palestinians and to the voting members of other organizations that we don’t see any benefit and we see considerable potential damage if this move is replicated in other U.N. organizations.”

Still, U.N. sources believe hurdles blocking entry to other U.N. entities may now fall like dominoes in the coming days and weeks.

UNESCO delegates applaud after voting to admit “Palestine” as a full member, at the agency’s General Conference in Paris on Monday Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

First up will likely be three organizations that automatically allow members of any other specialized U.N. agency to join – the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

WIPO, a Geneva-based agency that promotes the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) around the world, receives around $1.1–1.2 million a year from the United States ($1.216 million has been requested for FY2012.)

Unlike most U.N. agencies, most of WIPO’s funding does not come from member states’ contributions but rather from fees levied by WIPO for registering patents, trademarks and industrial designs. (For the 2010/11 budget totaling $703 million, member states only accounted for $39 million.)

Nuland said government officials had briefed U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business representatives Monday on the implications that the UNESCO vote may have for WIPO.

“During the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer underscored U.S. concern that Palestinian membership in WIPO could have serious implications for U.S. leadership in this organization, which supports the global IPR infrastructure and helps U.S. companies protect their intellectual property around the world,” she said in a statement.

“The United States is a leading global voice on issues related to patent, copyright, and trademark matters, and should the U.S. be unable to provide its contributions to WIPO, the impact of that voice could be significantly diminished.”

UNCTAD, also in Geneva, has the stated goal of promoting the integration of developing countries into the world economy. Its operations are funded from the U.N. operating budget and via trust fund contributions offered voluntarily by governments.

UNIDO, based in Vienna, aims to boosting industrial development in developing countries. The U.S. is not a member, having pulled out in 1996 amid criticism over its purpose and effectiveness. (Australia has not been a member since 1996, Canada left in 1993 and Britain has announced its intention to withdraw next year.)

Although a UNIDO decision to admit “Palestine” would not trigger a U.S. funding cut – since the U.S. is not a member or contributor – the agency has been trying for years to get the U.S. to pay around 69 million euros ($95 million) in arrears which it says the U.S. accumulated while it was onboard.

UNIDO’s biennial General Conference is scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 2. Iran is the outgoing General Conference chairman, and is reported to be working with others on the Palestinian admission issue.

WHO application revisited

Also in the Palestinian Authority’s sights are bigger targets – the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal.

U.S. taxpayers contribute around $109 million a year to the WHO, $103 million a year to the IAEA (with $106.8 million requested for FY2012), and $20 million a year to ICAO. The U.S. would have to close those funding spigots should the agencies admit Palestine.

P.A. health minister Fathi Abu Moghli said Monday an application for WHO membership was now being prepared.

The WHO has gone down this road before. The Palestine Liberation Organization made a bid for full membership of the agency in 1989, shortly after a unilateral declaration of statehood.

The George H.W. Bush administration warned it would cut all funding if the move went ahead, and the bid faltered. After a highly-charged debate the WHO assembly voted for a compromise proposal that effectively shelved the application.

“We stopped the PLO dead in its tracks, and it has not resurfaced for another 20 years,” former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton recalled while addressing a conference critical of the U.N. last September.

“It you want the United States to be listened to in the United Nations context, talk about money,” Bolton told the event. “It’s amazing what a bracing attitude you can get from doing it.”

Although the PLO’s 1989 initiative failed, it has enjoyed observer status at WHO’s annual assemblies since the 1970s. By contrast Taiwan, a self-governing democracy of 22 million people, has only had that status since 1989.

Taiwan has been trying to obtain full WHO membership since 1997 but China, which despite Taiwan’s de facto independence views it as a renegade province, has frustrated each attempt.

Taiwan is not a member of the U.N. or any of its specialized agencies or other bodies.

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