Palestinians hope for US reserve over UNESCO funds

AP News
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Posted: Nov 23, 2011 4:40 PM
Palestinians hope for US reserve over UNESCO funds

The Palestinian foreign minister said Wednesday he hopes the United States can be persuaded to reverse its decision to cut funds to UNESCO now that the U.N. agency has voted to give the Palestinians membership.

Riad Malki told The Associated Press in an interview that several countries are lobbying the U.S. over the withdrawal of the funds and that talks are planned between U.S. officials and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

Following the Oct. 31 vote that made Palestine a member of the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, two U.S. laws kicked in that halted the flow of funds to the agency, forcing it to scale back literacy and development programs it carries out in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the new nation of South Sudan.

The United States contributes $80 million annually in dues _ 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget _ and its 2011 contribution was not yet in when the laws took effect, immediately throwing UNESCO into crisis.

U.S. officials previously have said UNESCO's decision risked undermining the international community's work toward a comprehensive Middle East peace plan, and could be a distraction from the aim of restarting direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I hope that the United States will review that decision again, and re-engage with their commitment to support UNESCO," Malki told the AP, after formally signing a so-called instrument of accession to UNESCO in London, where the organization was created after World War II.

"We should not really mix politics with this kind of work. I hope that the United States and Congress should review the matter," he said.

The U.N. agency has been working to fill its money gap, appealing to other member states and creating a "click and donate" website for individuals to give money.

However, Malki said the main focus of member nations is to press the U.S. into a change of stance.

"We should really try to convince the U.S. to change its mind ... in terms of financial contribution. This is really very important," he said. "There are so many countries who are trying to do so."

Malki confirmed that the Palestinians do not intend to immediately apply for membership of other U.N. agencies _ some of which they now have an automatic right to join following their admission to UNESCO.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had raised concern over the Palestinian Authority's efforts to join U.N. affiliates before winning full membership of the U.N. itself.

The Palestinians have asked the U.N. Security Council to grant them full membership in the United Nations, but have acknowledged they are unlikely to muster the nine votes needed to approve their bid.

"We are not interested in moving that quickly to other organizations," Malki told the AP. "Right now we are not going to endanger or put in jeopardy the work of other organizations, we will wait until we conclude our mission in the Security Council, and when we do so we will look back and see what will be our next move."

Membership of UNESCO means the Palestinians could automatically gain membership in the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, which aims to lower poverty and help the environment, and the World Intellectual Property Organization, he said.

With the vote to admit Palestine, "some consider UNESCO as a hero, some as a villain," UNESCO Deputy Director-General Getachew Engida said. "We're all caught in this cross-fire, unfortunately, and it is too bad. I'm an African and I feel the pain," said Engida, who is an Ethiopian.

UNESCO may be best known in the public mind for its program to protect the cultures of the world via its Heritage sites. But its core mission also includes life-sustaining activities like helping to eradicate poverty or ensure clean water as well as teaching girls to read and promoting freedom of expression and human rights. All these are essential elements of nation-building, and engendering a climate of peace and are in the public eye as the Arab Spring unfolds in painful fits of violence and hope in North Africa and the Middle East.

A grim reality is already setting in for many nations _ including those which voted for Palestinian membership _ particularly in projects where the United States was directly implicated.

A case in point is Iraq, where several projects are compromised and one may not see the light of day _ just as the United States completes its troop pullout by year's end.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had promised $900,000 for the first phase of a project to strengthen Iraq's National Water Council, joining $500,000 in Iraqi funds to set up a database to track water supplies. Without the U.S. funds, the project is at risk, officials say.

Another $1 million in U.S. funds have been suspended for a project to promote public confidence in Iraq's judiciary system.

In South Sudan, which became an independent nation in July after decades of civil war with Sudan, a plan to help create the country's first Ministry of Education is among those that may suffer without the U.S. funds.

"In my personal view, I don't think that withholding funds is in the interest of the United States," Engida said. "UNESCO works in close cooperation with the U.S. administration ... to advance on common shared values, on democracy, good governance, freedom of the press, education for all."

Even without its largesse, the United States remains a welcome member. It was voted to UNESCO's executive board 48 hours after pulling out its money.

While the click-to-donate program aimed at the public has reportedly brought in paltry sums, some nations are digging into their pockets, notably Indonesia with a pledge Tuesday of $10 million and Gabon with an early pledge of $2 million, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams.

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Ganley reported from Paris.