UNESCO gives Palestinians full membership

The United Nations’ cultural agency decided on Monday to give the Palestinians full membership of the body, a vote that will boost their bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations.

Delegates cheer after they approved the membership of Palestine in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions, during the session of UNECOS's 36th General Conference in Paris on Monday. (Photo: AP)

Delegates cheer after they approved the membership of Palestine in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions, during the session of UNECOS's 36th General Conference in Paris on Monday. (Photo: AP)

UNESCO is the first UN agency the Palestinians have sought to join as a full member since President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full membership of the United Nations on Sept. 23.

The United States, Canada and Germany voted against Palestinian membership. Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa and France voted in favor. Britain abstained.

US lawmakers had threatened to withhold roughly $80 million in annual funding to UNESCO if it approved Palestinian membership. The United States provides about 22 percent of UNESCO’s funding.

Huge cheers went up in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after delegates approved the membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval in a hall with 173 UNESCO member delegations present.

“Long Live Palestine!” shouted one delegate, in French, at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of UNESCO’s General Conference.

While the vote has large symbolic meaning, the issue of borders of an eventual Palestinian state, security troubles and other disputes that have thwarted Middle East peace for decades remain unresolved.

Palestinian officials are seeking full membership in the United Nations, but that effort is still under examination and the U.S. has said it will veto it unless there is a peace deal with Israel. Given that, the Palestinians separately sought membership at Paris-based UNESCO and other U.N. bodies.

Monday’s vote is definitive. The membership formally takes effect when Palestine signs UNESCO’s founding charter.

The US ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said Monday’s vote will “complicate” US efforts to support the agency. The United States voted against the measure.

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, called the vote a tragedy.

“UNESCO deals in science, not science fiction,” he said. “They forced on UNESCO a political subject out of its competence.”

“They’ve forced a drastic cut in contributions to the organization,” he said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week called UNESCO’s deliberation “inexplicable,” saying discussion of Palestinian membership in international organizations couldn’t replace negotiations with Israel as a fast-track toward Palestinian independence.

Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu welcomed the admission of Palestine as a full member in UNESCO with the majority of votes, considering this historic achievement a positive sign for efforts for Palestine’s full membership in the UN.

İhsanoğlu congratulated the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestinian people on this move, which will serve Palestinian efforts for full recognition of their state. He stressed the continued support of the OIC for Palestine’s efforts in their endeavor for full membership in the UN and the establishment of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The OIC secretary-general arrived in Paris on Sunday to intensify his efforts to ensure securing OIC member states’ votes and to hold numerous discussions with Palestinian officials. He also had discussions with the heads of delegations participating in UNESCO’s General Conference in order to coordinate efforts before the vote took place.