We have all heard the jocular remark about the inmates taking over the asylum. But I had never actually witnessed that unnerving event until last October 31, when I spent an afternoon in the press gallery of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. The vast conference hall was not quite a madhouse, but it was noisy, agitated, and full of wild surmise. Hundreds of delegates from member states milled about, chattering excitedly as the president of UNESCO’s biennial general conference plaintively called for them to take their seats and get on with the business at hand. To wit, voting on a request by the Palestinian Authority for membership—and with it, the first recognition of its statehood by a United Nations agency.
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The stakes were high. In its quest for statehood without making concessions to Israel, the PA had applied for full membership in the UN in September, but it was obvious that the U.S. would veto that ploy in the Security Council. So PA President Mahmoud Abbas was targeting a weak link in the UN system where the veto does not exist. He knew that UNESCO, with its fuzzy cultural mandate, was as open to political manipulation now as it had been when it was an ideological battlefield in the Cold War.
The U.S. had made abundantly clear that, due to laws dating from the 1990s, admitting Palestine to any UN agency would mean an immediate cutoff of American funding. In UNESCO’s case, this amounted to fully 22 percent of its budget. There was no leeway for interpretation, no possibility of waiving the laws’ provisions. Perversely, that seemed only to sharpen the delegates’ appetite for admitting Palestine. As the roll was called, it became obvious that they relished thumbing their collective nose at the U.S. and the handful of member states that held this was the wrong place to decide Palestinian statehood. Cheers greeted votes in favor by delegations from Africa, South America, the Middle East, Russia, China, and, of course, France. Joining the fun was the ambassador from Uzbekistan, the beauteous 32-year-old Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, socialite daughter of President Islam Karimov, whose use of torture against dissidents, including boiling to death, the UN itself has termed “systematic.”
A sprinkling of moans or boos rippled through the assembly when the U.S., Germany, Holland, and a few others voted against. The president repeatedly called for a bit of decorum. Not a chance: now the grinning, gibbering, gesticulating inmates had indeed taken over. The final vote was 107 in favor to 14 against, with 52 abstentions. For anyone who still believed in UNESCO’s mission, it was an appalling spectacle. With that frivolous, self-defeating act, UNESCO signaled to the world that, once again, it was becoming the UN’s over-politicized rogue agency.
IT WAS A LOSE-LOSE MOVE both for Palestine and UNESCO itself. After the grandstanding, Palestine was no closer to statehood and possibly further away, hardening positions and jeopardizing the peace process. “It was an extremely reckless and callous move by Abbas,” one dismayed Western ambassador to UNESCO told me later. “There are no winners in this. Abbas has alienated some of his most important supporters.” The State Department and both parties in Congress quickly denounced the vote. As Texas Republican Kay Granger, chair of the House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, had warned, “I have made it clear to the Palestinian leadership that I would not support sending U.S. taxpayer money to the Palestinians if they sought statehood at the United Nations. There are consequences for short-cutting the process, not only for the Palestinians, but for our longstanding relationship with the United Nations.”
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Read More at The American Spectator By Joseph A. Harris, The American Spectator