Senator David Fawcett – Estimates question about UNESCO resolution on Occupied Palestine

photo of Senator David Fawcett
October 20, 2016

Questioned DFAT’s view on the wording of UNESCO Resolution 200 EX/25 which relates to Occupied Palestine and the Old City of Jerusalem.

I am interested to understand the department’s view towards the resolution that was passed last Tuesday about Jerusalem and particularly the wording, which essentially excluded any cultural, heritage or historical links from both the Jewish and, I understand, Christian heritages and linked it purely to one group. Does DFAT have a view on that? Has anything been expressed to UNESCO or the United Nations more broadly?

Whole interaction with Dr Lachlan Strahan (First Assistant Secretary, Multilateral Policy Division, DFAT) during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

Senator FAWCETT:  I think Dr Strahan is probably the person I need to speak to regarding UNESCO. Does that come within your bailiwick?


Dr Strahan : Yes, it does.


Senator FAWCETT: Clearly, Australia has been involved in UNESCO. We have been on the executive board in the past. We currently have people working with them. I believe we have a commission here in Australia. I am interested to understand the department’s view towards the resolution that was passed last Tuesday about Jerusalem and particularly the wording, which essentially excluded any cultural, heritage or historical links from both the Jewish and, I understand, Christian heritages and linked it purely to one group. Does DFAT have a view on that? Has anything been expressed to UNESCO or the United Nations more broadly?


Dr Strahan : Thank you for that question. As you know, Australia is very committed to UNESCO. We are not currently, however, on the executive board. It was the executive board which considered this resolution. Although we are not on the board, we made our opinion known to members of the board, and we urged them not to proceed along these lines. We thought the kind of language which was being used in the resolution lacked balance and politicised the issue. This is in fact a running issue in UNESCO. These sort of resolutions are generally considered in two contexts. One is in the executive board, which is a smaller subset of the total UNESCO membership. Second is in the general conference of UNESCO, of which we are a member. The conference met last year. A different process, frankly, there takes over.

We and other like-minded countries work very assiduously to make sure that any resolution which proceeds on these cultural heritage sites, including these religious sites, avoids these sorts of problems. So those resolutions are adopted by consensus. The United States is not currently a member of UNESCO because Palestine is recognised as a member under the name Palestine. But the United States is still heavily involved in that process and the general conference. So we all achieved a good outcome there. We were disappointed that the executive board, however, came up with a type of language which is unhelpful. The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has encouraged all members of UNESCO not to proceed down those lines again and to avoid this kind of divisive language. So our position has been consistent and very clear.


Senator FAWCETT: When you say the head, that is the Director-General of UNESCO?


Dr Strahan : Yes.


Senator FAWCETT: Their charter is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration. I accept and welcome the fact that you have protested that. Is there any further action in the general assembly of UNESCO as opposed to the executive board, which, as you say, we are no longer a member of, that can be taken to make it clear that the international community considers that this rewriting of history is very unhelpful in the context of a situation that, as you rightly point out, is occupying a lot of people’s minds and has done for decades and this kind of very unilateral approach is not going to assist in bringing a resolution about?


Dr Strahan : All international organisations, unfortunately, perhaps in one sense, are composed of member states. That means all of us. So all nation states bring to those organisations their different points of view. The UN has the same problem. The Commonwealth as well. So in the end these entities are defined by their members. If the members of the organisations put forward particular points of view which are pernicious or weighted one way or the other, the organisation itself does not have a power to stop that. As I mentioned, Ms Bokova—she is the head of the organisation, but she is an international public servant—is urging the member states to take a different and constructive approach.

So what I could say to you is that, going forward, we will continue to work with like-minded countries to urge all other members of UNESCO to take a non-political approach. However, I have to say that, like the UN, there were some strong differences in UNESCO. Although it is in some senses a technical body, it does have political issues transported into it. When you have that kind of political debate, unfortunately, more entrenched political positions come to the fore. I think Australia is one country here that is trying to take the heat out of the issue. We have like-minded countries who work with us. We would hope, leading up to the next general conference, we can continue, at least at the conference level, to get these non-troubling consensus motions. With the executive board we will continue to urge the members of the board to take a non-political approach to this issue. I cannot say that we will necessarily be successful in that effort, but we will not give up.


Senator FAWCETT: I appreciate the approach and the efforts to bring that balance. Could you just explain to the committee, then, in practical terms the impact of a resolution such as the one that has just been passed? Does that bind member states to any particular course of action or priority for funding? Is there a practical impact of a resolution such as that?


Dr Strahan : Frankly, I have to take on notice the practical implications of this particular resolution. I do not know in enough detail to know what kind of an impact it has. Many of the resolutions that are passed in these international organisations, of course, are more about putting down general statements and trying to reinforce particular norms and positions. I am not sure if this resolution was linked to practical outcomes. I do not think it was, but I will double-check that and make sure that we give you an answer.


Senator FAWCETT: Sure. My concern is obviously putting taxpayers’ funding into an organisation and then finding that our freedom to make sure that funding is used for purposes or within a context that we support is limited by a resolution like this. I would be disturbed and looking for ways to avoid that situation. But my other concern is that where you have strongly held views by various advocacy groups, they will then start taking the public platform, arguing that a UN body, which by implication means the majority of the world view, supports what has been stated. We hear arguments sometimes in the Senate. Sometimes we hear them in public or written in papers. Left unchallenged, they provide, I think, an artificial moral authority to the arguments of people who may be at one extreme, when there are other valid views, into an argument. So take on notice the practical impact. If there is some way beyond just the transcript of this estimates hearing to identify the fact that Australia does not support, and in fact many nations do not support, that resolution, I think that would be useful in terms of the ongoing debate in our own nation so that people who support that particular view cannot claim that as a platform that says they have the globe’s support behind them.


Dr Strahan : I think, as you would know, all issues relating to Palestine and these international organisations tend to be particularly emotional and divisive. There are very strong opinions on both sides of that debate that, frankly, are not going to go away. What I would hope is that everyone here would realise that UNESCO is a very broad body and actually touches on many different policy areas. A lot of its work is actually very credible and non-political and constructive. We, for instance, have a very big chunk of work in the education space which relates to the recognition of education qualifications. It is a very positive process. But at times, yes, UNESCO does become embroiled, although it is a technical body, in some more political issues.


Senator FAWCETT: Sure. And hence my call for us not to withdraw or anything else. It does do a lot of valuable work. We need to be very clear in the public space where there is something put forward by a small group of nations. Look at the number who abstained from the vote. Clearly they cannot claim the majority of the executive board. I think it is important that it is on the public record as to Australia’s view on the validity of that resolution.

Link to full Hansard transcript.