Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

UNESCO half-heartedly condemns Syria, but leaves it on its Human Rights bodies

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On March 8, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) published a condemnation of human rights violations perpetrated by Assad's regime in Syria. The resolution was passed with 35 votes in favour, and 8 opposed, making UNESCO the third UN agency (after the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council) to address the human rights situation in Syria. However this condemnation seems inconsistent with UNESCO's treatment of Syria, since Assad's representatives are still sitting in two UNESCO committees dealing with human rights issues: the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations and the Committee on International Non-Governmental Organisations.

Syria was nominated for the two committees by the Arab Group, and its nomination was ratified on November 11, 2011 (long after the government had already killed large numbers of its own dissident citizens) by UNESCO's 58-nation executive board- in which Syria was already a sitting member.

"The United States is profoundly disappointed that this resolution does not call for the outright removal of Syria from the committee on Conventions and Recommendations- something for which we have repeatedly called for, " stated US Permanent Representative to UNESCO, Ambassador David Killion, after the vote on the situation in Syria. "I agree with Director General Bokova that, given the actions of the Assad regime, it is not clear how Syria can contribute to the work of the committee," He added.

Killion cited a recent report which was presented to UNESCO regarding the situation in Syria, exposing the devastating implications of the regime's violence: "Syrian villages, towns and cities are facing devastation, and Syria's rich cultural heritage is imperiled. How many dead and wounded journalists must be carried out of Syria before we recognize that the situation in that country is an affront to the very purposes for which UNESCO was founded?"

Killion was not the only one to voice his opposition and discontent regarding Syria's membership in UNESCO's human rights-related committees. On January 6, the UK announced that it will act with other countries to expel Syria from the human rights committees. The UK announcement was in response to a joint appeal by Members of Parliament, human rights organisations, civil society representatives and pro-democracy dissidents and activists launched on December 15, 2011 to the UNESCO Executive Board "to urgently remove the Syrian regime from the aforementioned human rights committees, and to publicly apologise to the victims of the Syrian regime for having elected it in the first place." The appeal declared that "each day that the Syria continues to sit on the aforementioned UNESCO human rights committees constitutes an affront to the memory of the innocents who continue to be killed by the Assad regime, and casts a shadow upon the reputation of UNESCO, and of the United Nations system as a whole." Like the American statement, this appeal also mentioned the opposition to the election of Syria as a member of these committees expressed by the UNESCO Director-General, Ms. Irina Bokova, who has stated that she "does not see how the Syria can contribute to the work of the committees."

A representative of the UK Foreign Office stated that the UK "deplores the continuing membership of Syria on this committee and does not believe that Syria's presence is conducive to the work of the body or UNESCO's reputation," while referring to Syria's membership in the committees an "abhorrent [and] anomalous situation."

UNESCO's condemnation of Syria is a result of an initiative by UNESCO members (U.S., EU members, Canada, Japan, Qatar, Kuwait etc), which formed a coalition and requested that Syria's controversial membership be discussed and reviewed as an agenda item during the UNESCO board meeting last month. This effort was launched on December 14, 2011. It was signed by 14 member states and was joined by other countries, such as Japan and South Korea by January. The request stated that "UNESCO must respond to these appeals for concerted action to address the egregious human rights situation in Syria," and emphasised that Syria's membership on UNESCO's Committee on Conventions and Recommendations allows it to participate "in the examination of cases involving alleged human rights violations... In view of the current situation in Syria, the Executive Board must review the participation of Syria in this aspect of its work...In addition, in view of documented concerns about the effect of the situation in Syria on its people, including, in particular, children and journalists, the Board should review this situation having reference to other areas of UNESCO's competence, namely, education, cultural preservation and press freedom."

Despite the campaign to remove Syria from human rights- related UNESCO committees and growing support for the campaign by UNESCO executive board members, Syria's membership in these committees remains, for now, unchallenged. The hypocrisy expressed by UNESCO only chips away the agency's remaining credibility, as it condemns Syria for human rights violations, while keeping it as a member of its own human rights committees. One can only hope that the absurdity of the situation and the damaging effect for UNESCO will eventually lead to meaningful and effective decision-making, not mere slaps on the wrist, as happened earlier this year, when Syria had submitted its candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That candidacy was eventually defeated following a global protest campaign.

Or Avi-Guy