For Immediate Release

Montreal, Nov. 1, 2011 – On Oct. 31, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted full membership to Palestine, despite the certainty that the U.S. would cut its funding — 22 per cent of the agency’s budget. The UNESCO membership bid, which required approval by two-thirds of the agency’s general conference, passed by a vote of 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions. The U.S., Canada, Israel, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany were among those who voted against, while China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and India voted in favour. Huge cheers erupted in the UNESCO meeting hall when the Palestinian membership passed.

UNESCO director general Irina Bokova remarked, “The admission of a new member state is a mark of respect and confidence. This must be an opportunity to strengthen the organization… not weaken it.” However, hours later, the U.S., as anticipated, announced cancellation of its UNESCO funding, in accordance with US laws passed in 1990 and 1994. US funding was currently $80 million a year, $60 million of which was due this month. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada was “not happy” with UNESCO’s decision, and will be “reconsidering” its funding for the agency, currently $10 million a year.

“CJPME applauds the principled stance taken by most UNESCO member states. Palestine meets the criteria for a member state, and any attempts to deny it membership would be merely political, ” says Thomas Woodley, President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). CJPME urges Canadian MPs to push for increased Canadian funding for UNESCO, in order to offset the U.S. cuts. Palestine’s membership in UNESCO will allow it to seek world heritage status for historical sites, such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — considered a holy place by Palestine’s Christians and Muslims.

Prior Palestinian requests for full membership had been rejected. Thus Palestine’s admission now signals a shift in many countries’ stances, likely in response to Israel’s repeated violations of international law. UNESCO has often been critical of Israel for its actions vis-à-vis historical sites in the West Bank. In 1974 Israel was stripped of its UNESCO membership over damage done by Israel’s archaeological excavations on the Temple Mount — the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. UNESCO renewed Israel’s membership in 1977, after the U.S. threatened to withhold $40 million of funding.