UNESCO Decision On Palestine Backfires Badly

March 8, 2012 by David Singer
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A report just issued by UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova reveals the extent of the serious crisis facing UNESCO following its decision to admit  “Palestine” as its 195th member State – contrary to the terms of UNESCO’S own Constitution and customary international law…writes David Singer.

Prior to the vote to admit “Palestine” on 31 October 2011 – Ms Bokova had issued delegates with this warning:

“Let me be frank. As Director General it is my responsibility to say that I am concerned by the potential challenges that may arise to the universality and financial stability of the Organization. I’m worried we may confront a situation that could erode UNESCO as a universal platform for dialogue. I’m worried for the stability of its budget. It is well known that funding from our largest contributor the United States may be jeopardized. I believe it’s the responsibility of all of us to make sure that UNESCO does not suffer as a result”

Her unambiguous and clearly articulated message was ignored – but it has been proved to be correct.

The United States did in fact immediately suspend its payments to UNESCO – denying UNESCO about US$260 million for the period 2011- 2013 – amounting to 22% of UNESCO’S budget.

The suspension of such payments was mandated by American law for any international organization that took unilateral action to recognize “Palestine“ outside the negotiations being conducted between Israel and the PLO.  There appears to be little prospect of that law being circumvented.- especially in an election year.

Ms Bokova was then forced to prepare her current Report for the 48 members of  UNESCO’S Executive Committee to revise UNESCO’S already predetermined programs for global humanitarian aid for 2012-2013 to cope with the sudden loss of this American revenue.

The Report does not make for pretty reading.

Ms Bokova had to make an unprecedented call on member States to pay their annual subscriptions in advance to give her some cash up front to implement the budgeted programs from 1 January with minimum disruption – whilst she tried to sort out the financial mess that she had inherited as a result of the Palestine vote.

Her plea was not in vain.  The total of advance payments received at 31 December 2011 amounted to $19.9 million compared to $2.2 million at the end of 2009. As of 31 January 2012, $88.4 million of 2012 assessed contributions have been received as compared to $21 million in January 2010.

However Ms Bokova is merely postponing making the really hard decisions on the cutting or abandonment of programs – hoping against hope no doubt for some miracle before these advance payments are swallowed up leaving an enormous black hole in UNESCO’S bank accounts

Her action in setting up an Emergency Donor Fund has been poorly supported with just US$42 million being pledged in the three months since its formation – only $32,000 of which was donated by the public, public institutions and private endowments.

Only US$31.2 million of the US$72 million owing by America for 2009-2011 was recouped  by cuts of 8% in activity budgets (US$21.7million) and 2% in staff cost budgets (US$9.5 million.)

Many UNESCO members are already in arrears with their contributions – which only exacerbates the cash flow needed to maintain the designated global programs. The percentage of unpaid contributions for 2009-2011 has significantly increased from 3% at the end of 2009 to 12% at the end of 2011.

Overall the total unpaid contributions by member states amount to a staggering $98.7 million at 31 December 2011 – twice the level at end of 2009.

UNESCO was also forced to draw down its total Working Capital Fund (WCF) of US$30 million to finance its programs as a result of its parlous financial position.

90% of UNESCO’S budget is paid by 25 of the 195 member states – putting the Organization at risk when one of them delays its payment. The WCF was the only reserve available to face delays in the payment of contributions. This reserve belongs to Member States and is not meant to finance programmes or to be used where a member suspends its payments..

The Report indicates there will be deep cuts in programs designed to help improve the lives of scores of millions of people world wide – as well as many more staff retrenchments.

An analysis of the provisional work plans as at end January 2012 shows the profound impact of the severe funding constraints across the entire Organization, which reaches into core priorities and operations.

The funding shortfall has forced UNESCO to start the 2012-2013 biennium with a reduced Regular Programme budget which translates into a reduction of some 58% to the education activity budget.

In some areas such as HIV and AIDS – only limited regular programme funds will be allocated to be used as “seed funding”. Ms Bokova hopes the shortfall will  be supplemented from extra-budgetary resources.

The Natural Sciences Sector’s work plan budget has been reduced by 31%.  The current budgetary situation has had very serious consequences for this Sector. Had the sector not freezed or abolished vacant posts, the cut in the regular programme budget would have been represented in a net negative allocation for regular programme activities. However, by delaying the recruitment of over 20 posts (for varying time periods), the Sector generated savings under the staff costs, which in turn were used to create budget for programme activities.

Ms Bokova’s Report has received a frosty reception from the International Staff Association of UNESCO – which Ms Bokova describes as a “staff confidence crisis”.

The Association concludes that the Report:

“lists haphazardly reductions in administrative costs and the postponement or cancellation of programme activities. Elements considered to be key priorities in the construction of a modern personnel management system for the Organization have been penalized inter alia through the suspension of the merit-based promotion scheme, investments in human resources management computer tools and training programmes and the cancellation of gender priority evaluation activities and training for Administrative Officers”

Yet this crisis could have been possibly averted by UNESCO spending just $100000 seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of  its decision to admit “Palestine”. No suggested recommendation for this course of action appears in Ms Bokova’s Report.

An opinion declaring Palestine’s admission to be unconstitutional would lead to an immediate inflow of American funds and an end to UNESCO’S woes immediately.

UNESCO obviously still prefers to play politics at a real cost to its universality and financial stability.

Go figure – and spare a thought for those millions of people world wide who are fast becoming victims of UNESCO’S inaction to try and reverse the disastrous consequences of its decision on “Palestine”.

David Singer is a Sydney Lawyer and Foundation Member of the International Analysts Network


11 Responses to “UNESCO Decision On Palestine Backfires Badly”
  1. Debbi Weiss says:

    No organization has the right to consider they are above the law. End of story.

  2. Steve says:

    David, ”israel’ must concur to welcome this move. It only enhances a step forward to equal positioning for future peace talks. SURPRISE us and AGREE! You too ‘otto’!!??

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Yes Stevo, Israel DOES agree with the current move of funds being withdrawn !!! So delighted that we concur.Howz your mate from the railways!?
      Soon, in April, will be the birthday of his hero. Did he invite you to his den for ein schnapps followed by traditional arm gestures ??!!

      otto, no need for ” or ‘

    • david says:


      What do you mean by the statement:

      “”Israel” must concur to welcome this move”

      What “move” are you talking about?

      I will answer you when I know what you mean.

  3. We ignore this warning from Ms Bokova at our peril……………the USA should suspend all payments to UNESCO – and so should EU countries – until commonsense prevails and the P. A is confined to the sidelines, as infinitum.

    • david says:

      Patricia Jones

      The USA has indeed suspended all payments to UNESCO – as has Israel.

      Canada has made it clear it is not going to kick in any money to make up the $260 million shortfall.

      To be fair – 87 countries – for whatever their reasons – did not affirmatively vote for the decision to admit Palestine. All of them must surely be shaking their heads at the stupidity displayed by the 107 other countries who ignored the Director General’s warning. Not too many of the naysayers will now be prepared to pay for their fellow members’ foolhardiness – as the response so far to the three months old Emergency Appeal indicates.

      If the International Court finds the decision to admit Palestine complied with the UNESCO Constitution then the law would need to be respected and upheld and UNESCO would have to find other ways to get the $260 million. But the legality of the decision to admit Palestine would have been confirmed.

      My suspicion is that UNESCO does not believe this will happen and for political reasons is resisting going to the International Court.

      If there was no sting in the tail by maintaining this position then UNESCO could filibuster whilst I shouted out in vain till the cows came home.

      However there is a sting – a deadly sting – which affects millions world wide.

      Can you imagine what cutting funds for AIDS and HIV education in African countries will do as Ms Bokova has indicated in her Report? Yet this could be avoided if the Court rules the admission of Palestine was unlawful.

      Is UNESCO justified in putting the lives at children at risk because it is driven by a political agenda that doesn’t give a hoot for the consequences?

      UNESCO will have to bear the responsibility for the humanitarian disasters that must inevitably follow whilst it refuses to approach the International Court.

      We have only seen the beginning of what is going to be an avalanche of misery and suffering visited on people all around the world – that could possibly be avoided by spending $100000..

      UNESCO cannot say it was not warned.

  4. david says:


    As I explained to Ben – going into the legal intricacies of the decision to admit Palestine is hardly a subject of interest for JWire readers.

    Let me simply state that I take the view – and gave my legal reasons to UNESCO – that:

    1. 129 affirmative votes were required to admit Palestine – not the 107 recorded

    2. “Palestine” is not a state and so did not qualify to be admitted

    What irks me is that UNESCO has not even tried to tell me where my legal arguments are deficient.

    UNESCO has a well resourced and funded legal Department with many lawyers. Not one has attempted to rebut my detailed arguments. Even if they did – there would then be two differing opinions that still needed to be resolved by judicial determination.

    I have instead been dealt with by spin doctors from the UNESCO PR division. That is UNESCO’s prerogative. But then they have to also cop the flak for that decision.

    Obviously you have read my previous articles. I am not going to go away whilst the legal issues surrounding the UNESCO decision on Palestine remain unresolved. That decision is affecting the lives of millions of people around the world. If it can be reversed then it should be.

    That decision is costing UNESCO heaps in abandoned or curtailed global programs and the loss of qualified staff.

    Who knows even some of its legal and PR departments staff may find themselves out of a job as the Director General takes the axe to try and redraw the 2012-2013 program to make cost savings of about $190 million.

    Given the cavalier attitude displayed by these departments to my claims of unconstitutionality – cuts in these areas could certainly be justified.

    And all of this could possibly be avoided by going to the International Court for a cost of $100000.

    Go figure. I certainly can’t.

  5. david says:

    To Ben

    Boring J Wire’s readers with my legal reasons why the decision to admit Palestine was unlawful is not really helpful in outing and criticising UNESCO for breaking its own Constitution and getting itself into the parlous situation this latest report so graphically reveals.

    Let me say my detailed legal reasons were submitted to UNESCO – which refused to discuss them or point out where they disagreed with what I alleged despite many requests that they do do..

    I can only assume in the circumstances they had no arguments to rebut my legal argument.

    In fact I warned them this is the assumption I would make if they continued to ignore dealing with my submission.

    I am not that naive to know that there may be legal opinions contradicting mine. That is why we have courts to determine who has got it wrong and who is right.

    UNESCO is not prepared to spend $100000 trying to get the International Court to decide..

    Whilst it retains that attitude – it is going to lose $260 million in unpaid American dues for the next two years and scores of millions of people world wide will suffer as UNESCO programs are abandoned or curtailed as 22% of its budget is not received.

    If I offered you the opportunity to get a possible $260 million for an investment of $100000 – would you
    take up the challenge? What if I found you someone who would take up the case for nothing on the promise of a 20% success fee?

    UNESCO won’t do either – and the world will continue to pay for its grossly irresponsible inaction until it does.

    That is why I started the following petition two months ago – fed up at this display of defiance and arrogance by an organization that apparently considers itself above the law.


    If you feel the same after reading this response – then please sign the petition and get your friends to do likewise.

    Alternatively you and your friends can join the following Facebook group and follow and comment on the progress of UNESCO’s slide into a black hole from which it might never get out.


  6. Sophie says:

    I see this admission being “unconstitutional” has been the subject of every “related story” published by Singer since it happened.

    The admission rules are stated in the charter, and the vote was overwhelmingly in Palestine’s favour. To calculate a two-thirds majority against the number of members rather than the number of votes cast would be a rediculous system.

    Don’t you think that the Admissions Board of UNESCO would have said the vote failed if what you’re saying was true? Don’t you think that Israel or the U.S. would have pursued a loophole if there was one? Don’t you think that by now the meaning of the charter has been demonstrated through practice as jus non scripture or even customary law?

    Really, it might be time to just drop the stick and stop flogging the dead horse.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Brandishing and juggling thereof convenient OPINIONS/SPECULATIONS, Sophie, versus actual FACTS, as David does, cannot satisfy the need for a strictly realistic input. Your “possible” alternatives and non event considerations make for totally useless scenarios, unless we are now delving into fiction.

      David is presenting the tangible reality emerging from what legal imperatives, yes related to poilitcal realities, have determined.
      As US is NOT against the formation of a Palestinian state in the same politcal forum/context, the clear and existing legal factors prevailed.
      UNESCO opted for strictly political bias with total disregard for the legal and financial consequances as Bokova anticipated !!!
      It will help to consider the COMPLETE picture, unfavourable to you as it may be. Same goes for similarly rationally truncated Ben !!!

  7. Ben says:

    Great PR. BUt Singer does not show how the admission is unconstitutional. I the rule of admision that a majority means those present and voting – as is the norm in most legislatures – or a majority of members.

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