Palestinian Membership Bid Overshadows UNESCO Conference

Application for UNESCO membership approved by executive board October 5, vote on issue expected at conference in coming days; U.S may withdraw all funding of UNESCO if bid approved.

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The Palestinian push for greater recognition by the United Nations hung over the start of a two-week general conference of the UN cultural agency UNESCO in Paris on Tuesday.

The Palestinian application cleared the first hurdle on October 5, when UNESCO's executive board voted in favor of membership, and the issue now moves to UNESCOs general conference, which is expected to hold a vote in the coming days.

Mahmoud Abbas on his visit to Colombia, October 10, 2011. Credit: AFP

But the United States - which was one of the four countries on the executive board to vote against Palestinian membership, along with Germany, Romania and Latvia - has thrown a spanner in the works.

Under legislation dating back more than 15 years, the U.S. government is barred from funding a UN agency that accepts Palestinians as a full member.

UNESCO depends on the U.S. for 22 per cent of its budget.

Unlike the UN Security Council, where the U.S. has a veto that it says it will use, if necessary, to block Palestinian membership, no country has a veto at UNESCO.

If the vote clears the general conference, as is expected, the U.S. could withdraw from UNESCO altogether.

The New York Times reported at the weekend that diplomats were "desperately negotiating with Congress, the Palestinians and other UNESCO members to find a resolution that will preserve the agency's budget."

France, traditionally seen as sympathetic to the Palestinians, has also campaigned against a vote.

A foreign ministry spokesman said earlier this month that UNESCO was not the "appropriate forum" for a vote on Palestinian membership and the general conference was "not the time" to discuss it.

The Palestinian mission to UNESCO refused to comment, only saying that it expected a vote "in the coming days."

After requesting UN membership from the United Nations Security Council in September, the Palestinians then asked the French-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for admission as a full member.

All UN member states automatically become members of UNESCO. Non-UN members can also become members, if they can muster the support of two-thirds of UNESCO's 193 members in a vote at the biennial general conference. The Palestinians currently have observer status.

UNESCO membership would also allow Palestinian leaders to apply for sites such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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