Tuesday,18 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Tuesday,18 December, 2018
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

UNESCO’s new phase

Israeli-US pressure kept an Arab from heading up UNESCO. Signals are that now the outlook of the organisation will be upturned, writes Mohamed Salmawy

اقرأ باللغة العربية

With the election of Audrey Azoulay, a French Jew of Moroccan origin, to head UNESCO, the international educational and cultural organisation has entered a new and unprecedented phase in its over 70-year-old history, during which time it was the only UN body that served as a voice for the Third World in view of the domination of the great powers over other UN bodies in New York, Geneva and elsewhere. 

This hegemony is most explicit in the UN Security Council in which the five permanent members have veto power over any proposed resolution they dislike. While such a power does not exist in the General Assembly, which does give Third World countries the opportunity to assert their views, given that they form the majority, General Assembly resolutions are not binding. Perhaps the resolutions pertaining to Palestine best illustrate. The General Assembly has passed dozens of resolutions capable of realising a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian cause and ending the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole, but none have ever been applied.

UNESCO is different. All countries are equal in their votes. True, there is an executive board that runs the organisation. But none of its members has power to wield a veto to halt a resolution supported by the majority. Also, the board consists of 58 out of the organisation’s 190 members. This is why UNESCO, since its establishment in 1945, was better able to serve as the Third World’s voice in the UN. 

This situation was acceptable to all members until not long ago. Third World countries were not only able to pass resolutions they sponsored and supported, but also place individuals who represented them in the director-general post, as occurred with Amadou-Mahtar MBow from Senegal. In spite of opposition he faced from Western powers, MBow bequeathed a record of performance and achievement that does honour to all Third World countries. 

During the past two decades, confrontation intensified between the prevailing views in the organisation and those of Israel due to the latter’s abuse of Arab heritage as a result of its policies of settlement expansion and Judaicisation in the occupied territories. Israeli settlements were mushrooming so rapidly and on such an unprecedented scale on the ruins of razed Palestinian properties that the whole of the ancient heritage in these territories appeared doomed to extinction. As safeguarding civilisational heritage is one of UNESCO’s most important tasks, the organisation could not remain silent in the face of these criminal activities.

The confrontation between Israel and UNESCO gave rise to three phenomena. The first was deep-seated Israeli hostility towards the organisation. I, myself, was there in June to watch Israel’s UNESCO Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen scornfully inform executive board members that he had to see a plumber about a huge problem with his toilet, which was more important to him than their decisions. He later told Israeli radio that no such appointment existed and that he merely wanted to express his contempt. The UN body, in that session, had just adopted a resolution to recognise Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site. 

The second phenomenon was the broadening of the conflict to include the US as Israel’s partner in its antagonism towards UNESCO. The US went on record as the first country to withdraw from the organisation, a decision it took when UNESCO granted membership to Palestine in 2011. Since then, it has refused to pay its annual dues, which account for 25 per cent of the budget. Even after it joined the organisation again, it continued to refuse to pay up. One of Washington’s most frequent refrains in recent years is that UNESCO is “anti-Israeli”. 

From the foregoing we get the third phenomenon: the impossibility of allowing an Arab to take the seat of director-general. In past years there have been three Egyptian candidates, a Saudi, a Qatari and an Algerian. This is not to mention those who withdrew from the race early. Israel spearheaded campaigns against these candidates and could always count on powerful backing from Washington. This time around, it was obvious that Israel, the US and the Jewish lobby had pitted their full weight behind Azoulay in order to prevent an Arab from becoming director-general. The US declaration of its decision to withdraw from UNESCO (followed by a similar Israeli announcement) was a blatant attempt to pressure the executive board’s members before the last round of voting in which Azoulay competed against the candidates from Egypt and Qatar. When congratulating Azoulay after the second to last round, Ambassador Moushira Khattab expressed her confidence that Azoulay would be able to keep the US and Israel from withdrawing. One imagines Khattab had her tongue firmly in her cheek as she said that. 

What struck me most at that point was the comment by the Israeli UNESCO ambassador. UNESCO, he said, is about to embark on a totally new phase in which politics will be cast aside and resolutions will not reflect biases against any of the member states. Israel’s UN delegate Danny Danon said virtually the same thing when the UNESCO election results were announced.

The question now is the Arab stance. It is a tough question especially given that some Arab members of the executive board voted for the candidate who has become the symbol of the “new phase” in the history of UNESCO.

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