GENEVA, Nov. 23 – UNESCO’s executive board, which includes the US, France, the UK and other Western democracies, unanimously elected Syria to a pair of committees – one dealing directly with human rights issues – even as the Bashar al-Assad regime maintains its campaign of violence against its own citizens.
The Arab group at UNESCO nominated Syria for the spots, and though the 58-member board approved the pick by consensus on Nov. 11, the agency has not yet posted the results on its website.
Syria’s election came just a day before the League of Arab States moved to suspend Syrian membership of that body.
“The Arab League’s suspension of Syria is stripped of any meaning when its member states elevate Syria to UN human rights committes,” says Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch.
“It’s shameful for the UN’s prime agency on science, culture and education to take a country that is shooting its own people and empower it to decide human rights issues on a global scale. Regrettably, the pressure to bow to consensus – part of the go-along-to-get-along tradition at the UN – can drag everyone down to the will of the lowest common denominator.”
Neuer highlights that the executive board’s decision should not be all that surprising, given the body “recently welcomed serial human rights abusers as new members, like Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan and Russia.” Syria was already on the executive board, noted Neuer, “as were other countries with poor human rights records, including Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Belarus, China, Vietnam and Algeria.”
The UN says Syria’s crackdown on opposition protests has left more than 3,500 people dead over the past eight months.
“By rewarding the murderous Syrian regime with badges of international legitimacy, UNESCO has endangered core interests of the U.S. and its allies, undermining national security, regional stability and democratic values.”
Syria will serve a second two-year term on the 30-member Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which examines “communications … relating to the exercise of human rights,” according to UNESCO’s Web site. Syria also joins the 23-member Committee on International Non-Governmental Organizations, which is mandated to encourage approved activist groups to help further UNESCO’s overall goals.
In a bid to insulate UNESCO’s administration from criticism, the agency’s executive director, Irina Bokova, insists her hands were tied. She has even broken with protocol in commenting that the executive board’s choice was not a good one.
“The director-general and secretariat are bound by the decisions of member states and are not supposed to comment on them,” said Sue Williams, UNESCO chief spokesperson.
“Yet given the developments in Syria, the director-general does not see how this country can contribute to the work of the committees.”
The criticism of the member states’ move comes as Bokova, on behalf of UNESCO, is struggling to overcome a sudden cut in U.S. funding to the agency after another controversial decision – namely the vote late last month by a majority of UNESCO’s 194 member states to admit Palestine as a full member.
The United States pays 22 per cent of the budgets of all UN agencies, and cut its payments to UNESCO because of longstanding U.S. legislation that prohibits funding any part of the UN that admits Palestine, which is not recognized by the UN as an independent country.
Still, Bokova herself provoked headlines earlier this month when she had one of her senior communications directors summon the Israeli ambassador at UNESCO to complain about a cartoon the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had printed.
Haaretz said the cartoon was an obvious dig at the Israeli government’s anger over the decision to admit Palestine.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, comments on the developments at UNESCO by saying the agency “continues to outdo itself with stunning and dangerous behavior.”
While the United States and some key allies, including Britain and France, are members of the UNESCO board, Western democracies are in a minority on the body. Canada, which joined the United States in opposing Palestinian membership of UNESCO, but is not a member of the executive board, told UN Watch it regrets the move to elevate Syria.
“While Canada was not involved in this decision, we find it deeply disturbing that Syria was designated by the Arab regional group at UNESCO as a member of the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, given the Assad regime’s continual and repeated violation of human rights,” said Joe Lavoie , a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “Canada strongly and firmly continues to call on Assad to step aside.”
UN Watch pointed out Tuesday that a resolution supported by an overwhelming majority in the UN General Assembly’s “third” committee – which deals with human rights – defers to Syrian demands for respect of its “territorial integrity” and “political independence” – even as it strongly condemed Syria for its violent crackdown.
UN Watch is a Geneva-based human rights organization founded in 1993 to monitor UN compliance with the principles of its Charter. It is accredited as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Special Consultative Status to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and as an Associate NGO to the UN Department of Public Information (DPI).
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