Palestine is in — almost! The 58-member executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted 40–4, with 14 abstentions, to let the organization’s General Conference vote on admitting “Palestine” as a full member state.
The United States was one of the four countries voting against this resolution. However, unlike in the case of U.N. votes, the U.S. cannot veto a UNESCO resolution. Thus, “Palestine” will likely become a “made member” of UNESCO this fall.
Following the executive board’s vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the United States might be legally required to withhold funding for UNESCO if the organization grants Palestine membership. “We are certainly aware of strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition,” she said. “It is still our hope and our strong recommendation that we take this to the appropriate forum, which is the negotiating table.”
Current U.S. law contains two restrictions that could lead the United States to withhold funds. U.S. Code Title 22, Section 287e states:
The first restriction applies to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Some have argued that Palestine is not the same as the PLO. This is a distinction without much of a difference. The links between the two are extensive and could easily justify suspension of funding. For instance, Yasser Arafat, who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords through which the Palestinian Authority was established, served concurrently as president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO. Moreover, even after the Oslo Accords, the PLO still claims a status superior to that of to the Palestinian Authority as the representative of all of the Palestinian people. That claim has been entrenched in various U.N. resolutions over decades.
Pointedly, in his letter seeking U.N. membership, Mahmoud Abbas signed as “President of the State of Palestine and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.” He specifically based his authority to apply for membership on the “status of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” because it was the PLO that was granted observer status in the General Assembly in 1974 under resolution 3237. In 1988, the General Assembly decided to use the designation “Palestine” instead of PLO. The PLO remains the basis for the U.N.-observer status of Palestine and Abbas’s application for membership.
Secretary Clinton, however, seems inclined to rely on the second provision rather than the first.
Clearly, the United States deems widespread international recognition of statehood to be insufficient. After all, Palestine claims recognition from some 120 countries, albeit not the United States. Presumably, Clinton is implying that admitting Palestine to UNESCO as a member would trigger the withholding of funds, because Palestine lacks the characteristics of a state long recognized under customary international law. These principles are concisely stated in Article I of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a ) a permanent population; b ) a defined territory; c ) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”
Palestine certainly falls short on the defined-territory criterion. It also arguably lacks a permanent population — Many Palestinians are in refugee camps in neighboring countries. It is questionable that they will be permitted to become citizens of Palestine. The PLO itself maintains that many of them have a “right of return” to Israel. It does not have a government that is the indisputable sovereign authority — Hamas controls the Gaza strip. As for the ability to enter into relations with other states, Hamas has refused to be bound by agreements negotiated by the Palestinian Authority, which it does not recognize as a legitimate institution.
Clinton’s interpretation of the legislation as it applies to the issue of statehood is reasonable. But the U.S. should not rely solely on the second legislative restriction to oppose the Palestinian effort, since it is doubtful that the administration would adhere to it when it realizes the full implications of that position. Objecting to Palestine’s membership because it lacks “the internationally recognized attributes of statehood” will inevitably raise the question — certainly in Congress as it deliberates closing budget deficits — of why the United States is not also applying that standard to other failed states that are members of the United Nations. To highlight just one obvious example, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government is voting in the United Nations on behalf of Somalia even though it controls only a fraction of Somali territory and falls short of most standards for statehood.
The United States is on strong ground for opposing Abbas’s effort beyond the withholding question, given that there is no unified government and that the two entities that claim control of parts of the Palestinian territories are closely tied to the PLO and Hamas, entities sanctioned under U.S. law. To the extent that the administration wishes to use the threat of financial withholding, which will be particularly useful in U.N. organizations where the U.S. cannot block Palestine’s membership through its Security Council veto, the PLO restriction should also be utilized. If embraced by the administration, is far more likely to be applied consistently.
— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.