With the admission of Palestine, UNESCO shows again it is over-politicized and running out of control. The U.S. should head for the exit.
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.
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.”
UNESCO immediately began suffering those consequences, starting with the loss of America’s contribution of about $80 million to its budget for last year, for 2012, and perhaps indefinitely. “We have to take drastic action and take it now,” the director general, Irina Bokova, said unhappily. “We are reviewing all activities in all areas, including staff travel, publications, communication costs, meetings, and the rest.” Some 20 of its 57 field offices might have to be closed.
It is paying the logical price for letting politics trump its cultural/educational mandate, and demonstrating that UNESCO lends itself, systemically, to this kind of abuse. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as the man said, and this fiasco reminded me of the bad old days of the 1980s. UNESCO was then a hotbed of vicious anti-Western ideology complete with strident condemnations of America. Instead of concentrating on fostering “full and equal opportunities for education for all, in the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge,” it became a political tool wielded by the Third World and the Soviet bloc. “If you don’t like what we are proposing,” an African delegate once shouted at Westerners, “we will jam it down your throats until you choke!”
One notorious program promoted a socialist-lining New International Economic Order. Its undeclared purpose was to redistribute Western wealth to a global welfare state; private enterprise was dismissed as “an economy of waste.” Educational grants were funding violent Marxist movements like the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Soviet-armed South-West Africa People’s Organization. Another wayward project was euphemistically called Communication in the Service of Man. In reality it promoted a New World Information and Communication Order with state licensing and codes of correct conduct for newsmen. When in 1983 France expelled 47 KGB spies, a dozen were under cover at UNESCO.
The director general was one Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, a volatile, irascible Senegalese who ran it like a profitable personal fief. Official funds were used to stroke his supporters. All job appointments and promotions were personally approved by him and based on ideology and nationality. When a planned U.S. audit of financial irregularities was announced, a mysterious fire destroyed key files. Disgusted and demoralized, competent senior staff fled, one protesting in writing “the destruction of professionalism.” The U.S., too, left: Ronald Reagan finally had enough and pulled America out of UNESCO in 1984.
WITH NO PERCEPTIBLE REPERCUSSIONS on American citizens except tax savings, it stayed out for 19 years. In 2003, George W. Bush took us back in “as a symbol of our commitment to human dignity.” The organization had been reformed, he noted hopefully at the time, “and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.” Laura Bush later became, and remains, a UNESCO goodwill ambassador. After all, idealistic America has always been an important part of this organization with utopian visions, beginning with its creation. The first American member of the executive board, the writer Archibald MacLeish, wrote the high-flown preamble to UNESCO’s constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
Today it has grown to 195 member states, more than any other multinational organization including the UN itself. Its staff of some 2,000 toil in half-a-dozen buildings at its sprawling Paris headquarters and field offices. They handle a biennial budget of $653 million, plus millions more in extra-budgetary contributions. At its best, it can be useful for monitoring and standard-setting in fields like education, science, and information. Member-state delegations I spoke with voiced many complaints about UNESCO—especially its growing politicization—but mostly like its education programs. American officials generally praise its efforts for universal literacy and clean water, women’s education, and disaster preparedness. One of its largest American-supported education projects is in Afghanistan, with literacy centers for both civilians and Afghan police officers.
Membership can also be good for American business. Companies like Apple, Cisco, Intel, Google, and Microsoft are cooperating with UNESCO because it opens access to global markets. As David T. Killion, U.S. ambassador to the organization, told me, “We think there are critical American interests at stake here: moral, cultural, national security, even economic interests. We think this is a strategic piece of real estate in the international system. It can get us to places we couldn’t get to otherwise.”
But Killion has been publicly critical of the political manipulation that goes on. Formerly a leading voice on international organizations with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he made the rounds of delegations trying to dissuade them from voting for Palestinian admission. During the executive board’s debate on the question he took the floor to express America’s “strong opposition.” He added, “We are profoundly disappointed that this issue has injected a difficult political issue into this organization, and believe that it has the potential to undermine severely the organization’s ability to carry out its critical mandate.” In 2010, he protested UNESCO’s tendency to single out Israel for criticism. “This undermines UNESCO’s credibility,” he said. “The U.S. strongly encourages the executive board to seek an alternative to highly politicized decisions and seemingly permanent agenda items focused only on one country.”
If the organization keeps hammering Israel, it is due to its aggressive Arab-African regional bloc of members. Its influence over UNESCO can be seen in ways large and small.
There was the scandal over World Philosophy Day. UNESCO inexplicably decided the 2010 conference would be held in Tehran, capital of that beacon of free thought, Iran—an inexcusable choice by an organization supposedly dedicated to freedom and human rights. Shocked academics around the world declared a boycott, calling the confab a propaganda exercise for a brutal regime. “It’s as if they decided to hold a philosophy conference in Berlin in 1938—with Goebbels as its head!” said Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo, an expatriate Iranian philosopher teaching at the University of Toronto. Backpedaling, an embarrassed UNESCO first said the conference would go ahead as scheduled, then tried to dissociate itself from events in Teheran by holding a parallel meeting in Paris. Confusion all around, along with red faces.
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