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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2012, Pages 12-13

United Nations Report

UNESCO Procedural Issues Not Quite Equivalent to Principles of International Law

By Ian Williams

BETHLEHEM:The belltowers of the Church of Nativity are seen behind the machine gun barrel of an Israeli armored personnel carrier stationed at Manger Square in the West Bank town of Bethlehem May 27, 2002, during a military offensive on the town. (Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel supporters usually downplay the significance of the United Nations, but when they crow about alleged victories—no matter how small—it is an oblique testimony to how much U.N. resolutions hurt. Most recently, U.N. Watch, which scrutinizes with halachic detail every move the world body makes on the Middle East, was claiming a victory because UNESCO's World Heritage Committee had decided not to accept an emergency resolution listing the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage site.

The World Heritage Committee secretariat ruled against a PA move to use an emergency procedure to register the church marking the birthplace of Jesus under the country of "Palestine."

"At the U.N., where the General Assembly each year adopts more resolutions criticizing Israel than on the rest of the world combined, this is a spectacle as rare as Halley's Comet," U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer jubilated. In fact, however, the secretariat did not rebut any of the substance of Palestine's application—it merely said that it should go through the regular procedure.

In classic bureaucratese, the secretariat recommended a resolution to the committee saying Palestine should "resubmit the nomination in accordance with normal procedures for nomination, to allow a proper assessment of integrity, authenticity and conversation, and proper consideration of management arrangements and appropriate boundaries for the property."

There is not a hint there of any evidence of Israeli triumph—after all, UNESCO already accepted Palestine as a state member last year.

Palestine went on to ratify UNESCO's Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage earlier this year, and asked the World Heritage Committee to register the church and the pilgrimage route in Bethlehem as an emergency because of "the combined effects of the consequences of the Israeli occupation and [because] the lack of scientific and technical measures for restoring and preserving the property are creating an emergency situation."

Israel wants the site registered as a World Heritage, but wants to do so jointly with the Palestinians—which would, of course, involve accepting that Israel has rights there. Israel certainly has financial interests there: its tourism industry has made immense amounts of money from Christian pilgrims and tourists visiting the Christian holy sites.

Since Neuer is so solicitous of United Nations views when they suit his tightly focused world view, one wonders what his reaction was to the interestingly forthright statement from the U.N.'s under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos. (Adding interest to the statement's contents, Amos was a Blair appointee in the British cabinet before taking up her current U.N. position.) In mid-June, she reinforced a joint statement from seven U.N. agencies and NGOs on Gaza, declaring that Israel's blockade "amounts to a collective punishment of those living in Gaza and is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law." She reinforced that conclusion: "The blockade of Gaza now entering its sixth year has had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of the 1.6 million Palestinians who reside there. More than 80 percent of families are dependent on humanitarian aid, and Gaza remains subject to severe restrictions on imports, exports and the movement of people, by land, air and sea."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also frequently deplored the blockade and demanded an end to it—but then he has also repeatedly stated the official U.N. position that "all Israeli settlements are contrary to international law." None of those irrefutable statements, however, seems to have excited Neuer as much as a procedural hiccup in UNESCO.

On the recognition front, the signs are that the Palestinians will be pushing for that again. Of course, it is a forlorn hope at the Security Council, where President Barack Obama will be looking over both shoulders at the Israel lobby as he orders any resolution vetoed. The chosen route will be via the General Assembly, which could accept Palestinian statehood without accepting it as a member. Every such step annoys Israel's leaders, since, insofar as there has been an Israeli diplomatic strategy, it has been to persuade the Palestinian leadership to sign away their people's legal patrimony.

That patrimony, of course, includes the beachfront property 100 feet deep between the Golan Heights and Lake Tiberias. Overlooked in all the negotiations—although Syria held it from 1948 to 1967, as part of Mandatory Palestine—it was clearly seized and occupied by Israel in 1967. Moreover, it was as clearly Palestinian as the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by the Egyptians. It is possible that whoever rules in Damascus in the years to come might be prepared to discuss this with the Palestinians, perhaps for a joint venture Club Med, or even as a trading card for negotiations with the Israelis.

But one thing is sure, no one in Damascus is going to relinquish Syria's claim to the Golan Heights, whose annexation by Israel, like that of East Jerusalem, is not recognized by any nation in the world. It was occupied by force, and thus its annexation under international law is "inadmissible," and it has been occupied by Israel in contravention of all the conventions that apply to the occupied Palestinian territories—although the nature of successive Syrian regimes has made many countries less zealous in actively pushing the issue.

But the big question is what regime is going to succeed? It is clear that the longer the imbroglio in Syria continues, the more the risk of the country fissioning along sectarian grounds, despite the best efforts of some of the the opposition leadership to reassure the minorities.

As we go to press, the U.N. observer mission has suspended its monitoring work—and not because its work is over, by any means. Its reports, even given the traditionally obsessive U.N. neutrality, not to mention the overall reporting, make it plain that despite the welter of competing claims, the blame for the balance of violence is overwhelmingly tilted toward the Assad regime. Until recent defections, tanks, artillery and helicopters were the property of the regime, provided by Russia, and it is the shelling of cities and villages that really demonstrates the government's moral bankruptcy.

The suspension of the observer mission could appear as an act of cowardice, but it is more likely to be a signal to the world in general, and to Russia and China in particular, that there are no more options. Moscow's invocation of armed rebels as the problem recalls the sign that allegedly was on the lion cage in the Paris Zoo: "This animal is dangerous—when attacked."

One of the basic principles for intervention has been the Hippocratic injunction to doctors, "First do no harm," but it is difficult to see how anyone could worsen the present condition of Syria. Clearly inaction has more perils for all concerned. As with Libya, Russia's support for the regime prolongs the agony and is becoming totally counterproductive as the old administration collapses and the welter of different political, confessional and regional factions take parts of power.

The support for Damascus loses Moscow support in the region, in the country and in the world. It is guaranteeing that it loses its Mediterranean naval base and future arms contracts while risking huge humanitarian damage to the country.

A clear signal to Bashar Al-Assad that the game is up might help a negotiated settlement and a relative peaceful transfer of power. Soon, the question is likely to be not whether there is intervention, but just who can do the intervening. Once again, Russia and China could be part of the solution, since a U.N. resolution would be necessary and they could help frame its terms of reference. Certainly the various Western powers, not to mention Israel, are out of the question, which points toward Turkey as the only country that would not be suspected of being part of an anti-Islamic Western plot.

There is no painless or good outcome possible at this stage. But a shorter endgame has to be better.

Obstructionism in Western Sahara

Of course, while Russia, rightly, bears the contumely of the U.S. and France for its obstructionism, it is worth remembering that, on the other end of the Middle East, in Western Sahara, it is Paris and Washington that have been running cover for Morocco's illegal occupation of the territory—whose endgame has now taken 40 years! It was 20 years ago that Morocco agreed to a census and a referendum. It has been another 20 years of prevarication, backpedaling and defiance of U.N. decisions, with France and America ensuring that Morocco's defiance has no negative consequences.

Perhaps one positive sign is that that Ban Ki-moon has faced down Rabat. The Moroccans had objected to his appointment of Germany's Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber as his special representative and head of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Perhaps because of his experience in East Timor, which for so many years was Western Sahara's companion in international limbo, Morocco was pushing very hard to stop his appointment, but in June, Ban went ahead anyway. It is a small but useful sign that some in the U.N. will not automatically kow tow to Rabat and its allies—certainly more successful than the UNESCO decision that so excited U.N. Watch's Neuer. But he, of course, would have applauded Morocco's defiance!


Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations who blogs at <www.deadlinepundit.blogspot.com>.

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