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Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of the United States following the withdrawal of United States funding from UNESCO.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has urged the United States to pay its assessed contributions to UNESCO until at least the date of Palestinian accession to UNESCO was decided. It is not yet clear which programmes might be affected by the US decision to withhold its assessed contributions to UNESCO.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is simply morally wrong potentially to withdraw funding from UNESCO projects that may save thousands of lives in future tsunamis, educate people about the Holocaust and foster free media in some of the newly emerging democracies of the Middle East in retaliation for others simply disagreeing with the United States about Palestinian membership of UNESCO? Does the Minister think that we should tell our friends in the United States that this is the way to lose friends and fail to influence people?

We do think it wrong—and we have raised this with our United States colleagues—that the United States should not merely consider withdrawing its contribution for the future, which, it is argued, is necessarily triggered by existing law in the United States, but should stop the contribution that was already due this year and on which UNESCO has already made spending plans. Obviously, the sudden withdrawal of commitments that have already been made will cause grave difficulties. A lot of people will lose their jobs and UNESCO has had to freeze all new plans. That is wrong; I agree with my noble friend. We raised this matter with the State Department and the point is being debated. Of course, the matter will be put to Congress, which is the driving force in this issue, but the general point that my noble friend makes is quite right.

Does the Minister recall Britain’s withdrawal from UNESCO for a long period in the 1980s, which unfortunately was part of the continuing use of UNESCO as a political and ideological tool? Can pressure be brought to bear on UNESCO to do something about Syrian behaviour, given Syria's recent speech to UNESCO about the importance of youth and women's education and so on, which seems a bit odd in the current circumstances?

The kind of pressure that can be brought to bear on UNESCO, and may have to be brought to bear as it faces the huge cut of 22 per cent in its budget, is to suggest that it should streamline and improve its administration. There have been improvements; it has made progress, and it is focusing on some very valuable programmes, as my noble friend pointed out. On the specific issue of Syria and Syrian projects, I cannot comment as I have no details. I will look into the matter. Broadly, there is now a British member on the UNESCO board, and we believe that UNESCO, which had some difficulties in the past, is improving and can focus on valuable things, of which the tsunami warning programme is a very good example.

Does my noble friend accept that as UNESCO's new Secretary-General is attempting to put it on to a much more streamlined and efficient path, the shortfall in funding will only undermine her position? Have the UK Government been in touch with other Security Council members to see whether they, as well as the G20, might be able to assist in making up the shortfall, at least on a temporary basis until UNESCO can revise its budget?

It is early days for that. We will have to see whether the United States follows through on what appears to be its intention not merely to withdraw future funds but current funds as well. A very large number of countries—107—voted for Palestine's membership of UNESCO. There were 52 abstentions and 14 countries voted against. Therefore it was a fairly solid commitment to Palestinian membership. On the question of funding, we will have to wait and see how the matter turns out. Certainly there are major difficulties to be faced and resolved.

My Lords, noble Lords on this side of the House all share the concerns about the future of UNESCO and agree with the Minister’s comments. The fundamental issue behind this question is how strongly we are prepared to make clear to the United States our difference of view on the recognition of Palestinian statehood. While the Government’s position was sympathetic, it was ultimately a decision to have no position—to vote neither for nor against. How does this advance the peace process and the cause of a two-state solution, given the present stalemate and Israel's very recent decision to announce further settlements that will be deeply counterproductive? Should we not be more robust on these issues?

That is, of course, a broader question. The noble Lord is absolutely right that the question of Palestinian statehood lies behind the question of whether partial arrangements, as it were, for statehood should be made by Palestine applying to various UN organisations, of which UNESCO is one. It is the judgment and view of Her Majesty’s Government that the way forward must be by negotiation for the emergence of the Palestinian state. We reserve the right to recognise the Palestinian state at the moment of our choosing. We take the view that a fragmented application to UNSECO and other bodies is probably a mistake and will delay negotiation. We also take the view that, if the matter is to go to the Security Council—I say “if”—and if then, as is almost certain, the Americans vetoed it, that, too, would set back negotiation very substantially. It may be rather limited now but it is going to be even more limited—indeed, it will screw it up completely—if that course is followed. There are plenty of ifs and buts in the future. Beyond that, there is the possibility that it might go to the General Assembly as well, but all these matters have yet to be decided.

My Lords, how often do Her Majesty’s Government receive representations from our allies about our own decisions on international subscriptions?

On how many occasions do Her Majesty’s Government receive representations from our allies on our decisions on international subscriptions?

I have absolutely no idea. The world is not like that. It is not a question of representations. Obviously there are discussions in the corridors at multinational meetings on who is going to subscribe to what. That is perfectly natural, but we make our own decisions in the end.

My Lords, is not the real issue that, given that no sensible negotiations are taking place, the Palestinians have very few options left and that their bid to become members of the United Nations, and initially of UNESCO, is the only way forward for them? If we keep talking about negotiations when they are not happening, are we not simply saying, “Let us leave it as it is”?

I am not sure that the noble Lord has got that right at all. It is perfectly true that Mr Netanyahu is not, or does not appear to be, a great proponent of negotiations at the present time, but the quartet is proposing some views. We think that there are pressures that can carry negotiation forward and we are not at all convinced that the Palestine statehood idea, if it went to the Security Council and produced the veto and the freezing up of negotiations all round, would be much of an improvement on the situation. I agree with him that it is not good, but it would certainly be very much worse in our view if we followed this course.

My Lords, in terms of acts that could be considered to be threatening to any future peace talks, surely there can be no equality between on the one hand the Palestinians wanting full membership of UNESCO, which is a fairly benign movement in its way, and on the other hand a profoundly aggressive movement: the continuing extension of settlements in the Occupied Territories? There really is no equality, surely, between those two acts.

No, none whatever. We regard the continued expansion of settlements as illegal, most unwise and highly provocative. That is part of the broad scene, and that must halt as part of the move forward to the negotiation that will bring Palestine to its full and rightful statehood. I agree. I am not quite sure what point the noble Lord is making. There is no comparison at all.