The Palestine UNESCO Vote

by Erik Voeten on November 1, 2011 · 5 comments

in Institutions,International Relations,Legislative Politics

Yesterday the membership of UNESCO voted to grant Palestine full membership, triggering a U.S. decision to cut funding to the organization. The vote is important not just for the future of UNESCO but also because it reveals how states are likely to vote on the bigger issue of UN membership and Palestinian membership in other treaty organizations, such as the International Criminal Court.

The graph below (click to enlarge) shows how countries voted on the UNESCO question by their overall record on UN votes on Palestine (Security Council members are depicted by red crosses).  I explained the methodology in an earlier post but the basic idea is that the further to the right a country is on the horizontal axis, the more favorable to Israel was its voting behavior in the UN General Assembly. The model expected all countries to the right of Australia to vote no on Palestinian membership. The fact that Australia also voted no is not a big surprise as it is pretty close to the cutting line (i.e. its actual behavior is not that different from its expected behavior). Yet, there are also notable and important surprises.

The unexpected no-votes by some small island nations can perhaps be attributed to the fact that these votes are generally cheapest, although it seems like Nauru wasn’t offered the correct package. More consequential is the divided EU vote. The EU had forged a common position on UNGA votes of Palestine. I predicted earlier that this common position would not hold on the more consequential matter of Palestinian membership. There are both geo-political and domestic reasons why countries may opt in different directions. For example, France has established credentials with Arab countries due to its active role in Libya. This has been very popular domestically. A yes-vote in defiance of the U.S. further establishes these credentials. Nevertheless, it would seem that in most EU countries the domestic politics would have pointed to a yes-vote. Hypotheses are appreciated to more systematically explain why different EU countries went different ways.

Second, there is a sizeable group of countries that  abstained even though their past record would have suggested a yes-vote. It does seem like this includes fairly large numbers of countries that are small and relatively dependent on U.S. aid. That is obviously a hypothesis that could be investigated further (and I may do so if I find some time).

Third, based on this vote, the U.S. will have to utilize its veto if it came to a UN Security Council vote. Nine UNSC members voted in favor (which is what is needed). Moreover, based on this vote, it does not seem like the UK is willing to share the potential cost of utilizing the veto with the United States. On the other hand, if the US were able to persuade France to abstain on the Security Council vote, the vote would swing. Expect this to be a somewhat big issue in weeks to come

Edit: The vote tally can be found here.

{ 5 comments }

Sean November 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Thanks for linking to the full tally on my blog. With the increasing popularity of populist right wing parties in Europe (which due to their stance immigration — especially of the Muslim variety — have found a common cause with Zionism in general and Israel in particular), I’m not sure I agree that domestic politics would point toward a “yes” vote.

In Sweden, for example, it would have been surprising to see the center-right governing coalition vote in favor of Palestine, particularly considering that the UNESCO dossier is handled by the Minister of Education, Jan Björklund, who leads Folkpartiet, which is more and more right-leaning these days. Likewise, the conservative coalition government headed by the VVD (and including Geert Wilders’s party) is not exactly known for its pro-Palestinian sentiment. Nor is the Dutch Foreign Minister, Uri Rosenthal.

I would also suggest that the island nation “no” votes were entirely to be expected, since those countries can usually be counted on to vote with the US. (As a side note, I may be wrong, but my gut instinct is that aggregating them with Latin American countries might not be terribly helpful, since I believe they vote much more often with North America than they do with Latin America.) As you mentioned, the surprising result here is that the US couldn’t even manage to get such stalwart allies as Tuvalu on board with a no vote. Also surprising, I think, is the reversal of Latvia.

Michael November 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Contrary to the third point, from the NYT story on the membership vote:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/world/middleeast/unesco-approves-full-membership-for-palestinians.html

“The announcement on Monday by Bosnia, which currently has a seat on the Council, that it would abstain appeared to deny the Palestinians the chance for nine yes votes, making an American veto appear unnecessary.”

Erik November 2, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Then the New York Times needs to learn how to count. There were 9 UNSC members that voted yes: Brazil, China, Gabon, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, South Africa,
France, and Russia (perhaps they didn’t count France).

Michael November 3, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Right, they didn’t include France.

The Palestinians claim the support of eight UNSC members, not including France, and believed they needed Bosnia for the ninth.

See:
http://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/palestinian-fm-eight-un-security-council-members-support-statehood-bid-1.387311?trailingPath=2.169%2C2.216%2C2.217%2C

and

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/palestinian-hopes-of-rallying-9-vote-majority-at-security-council-suffer-with-bosnia-stalemate/2011/10/31/gIQAwSBKZM_print.html

France supports the UNGA recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state (rather than a non-state observer) but not a UN member state: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/22/world/middleeast/france-breaks-with-obama-on-palestinian-statehood-issue.html

Not all UNESCO member states are UN member states (or vice versa). (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=141899851). So supporting Palestine’s admission to UNESCO does not necessarily mean supporting it’s admission to the UN.

So France’s vote for Palestinian membership in UNESCO does not mean that it will support a Security Council resolution to admit Palestine as a UN member state.

Gennady November 3, 2011 at 2:38 am

I think it’s useful to think about the relative cost (domestic and external) of a yes or no vote to a given country on different type of UN resolutions. A typical pro (or anti) Palestinian vote in the fourth committee of the UN GA simply has no value. Israel and the US are used to the plethora of Palestine-related resolutions and aren’t going to really reward or punish anyone for voting a certain way. The publics of the states in question have also become desensitized to the issue, and are unlikely to respond to these votes. The UNESCO resolution, on the other hand, is more salient than the typical UN resolution, and voting yes or no is going to affect a state’s relations with Israel/US on one side and Arab states on the other.

Given the above, it’s not surprising that states that are economically and/or militarily dependent on the US would follow the US lead on this resolution despite generally being neutral or even pro-Palestinian (though the Dutch vote could probably be better explained by changing domestic preferences, as has been referenced by an above poster). This isn’t a matter of “bribing” these countries, but rather expectations about continued cooperation in a highly asymmetric relationship. As an implication, I would predict that there’s a stronger relationship between US aid and voting on this resolution than on the typical UN GA ones.

It’s harder to explain the unpredicted yes votes. I wonder if certain countries in that category were trying to solidify their credentials in the G-77, foregoing their usual pattern of voting (and possibly their underlying preferences) in order to obtain favors or an elevated standing with this important grouping of states. I do find the Belgian case interesting: with no government to speak of, I would expect it to succumb to bureaucratic inertia.

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