Hillel Neuer
International human rights lawyer, writer & activist

Palestinians suffer defeat at UNESCO, losing France, EU, India, Africa


Sudan’s delegate to the 200th UNESCO Executive Board session in Paris this week. Sudan co-sponsored the text and was one of only 24 out of 58 member states who supported it.

Despite the outrageous denial of Jerusalem’s historic Jewish and Christian ties implied by the Palestinian-drafted Islamist resolution adopted today by UNESCO’s executive board—described by UN Watch here—the fact is that the Palestinians suffered a significant defeat in the international arena.

While every UNESCO member state that failed to firmly oppose the inflammatory text should be morally ashamed of itself, in the world of UN realpolitik a shift from a Yes vote to Abstain can speak volumes, causing major ripples in diplomatic relations with the affected countries. Every movement in voting is carefully tracked as an indication of political support and alliance.


  • France No Longer Leads Anti-Israel Camp: France’s decision to abstain today is a major shift in its singularly hostile stance UNESCO. Possibly because it’s based in Paris, French strategy at the UN agency for education, science and culture has been to appease the influential Arab, Islamic and Third World camps by distinguishing itself as a leading figure in the anti-Israel bloc. In 2011, for example, France took the lead in aggressively lobbying against the U.S. and Israel by urging UNESCO delegations to recognize “Palestine” as a member state, a catastrophic move that savaged UNESCO finances, programs and staff, as Washington followed through as mandated by U.S. law and cut millions in funding. In 2012, French voting was even more anti-Israel than the regimes of Assad’s Syria, Russia and Venezuela.
    What does Paris get in return? Probably many things about which we will never know, but at least one was public. When French forces bombed Muslims in Mali, UNESCO actually gave President Francois Hollande a peace prize for his military action: “Having assessed the dangers and the repercussions of the situation on Africa, the Jury appreciated the solidarity shown by France to the peoples of Africa.”

What changed today apparently is that the outrage expressed by Israel and its supporters in wake of France’s April support for a rabid text—which included accusations that Israel was “planting fake Jewish graves”—prompted French leaders to express regret, thereby influencing today’s virage in foreign policy. If the shift crystallizes, Ramallah will have discovered the pitfalls of over-reaching.

  • Confirming India’s Modi-Bibi Rapprochement:  Historically India has fully backed the one-sided Arab resolutions targeting Israel at the UN, influenced by its role in the Nasser-founded Non Aligned Movement, and by its population that includes more than 170 million Muslims. The steady rapprochement with Israel over the past decade accelerated and has reached unprecedented warmth under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India abstained in 2015 on a significant anti-Israel resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, which endorsed the tainted findings of a biased inquiry into the 2014 Hamas-Israel war, but New Delhi insisted that this was on technical grounds related solely to its principled objection to the ICC. Since 2014, Indian newspapers have been speculating a “tectonic shift” in the country’s foreign policy, whereby Modi would alter “India’s supporting vote for the Palestinian cause at the United Nations to one of abstention.” Today’s vote is a significant indication that something is finally afoot. Also notable: India’s neighbor Sri Lanka moved from the Yes camp to Abstain, which may be a first for that country.
  • Abbas Lost Sweden & Rest of EU:  In April of this year, on a similar yet harsher UNESCO resolution, Sweden—one of the most pro-Palestinian EU states—joined France, Spain and Slovenia in backing the rabid text accusing Israel of “planting fake Jewish graves” in Jerusalem. Today all EU states moved to abstain. To be sure, the EU reliably votes against Israel at the General Assembly and at the Human Rights Council, with only occasional abstentions, but today’s vote cannot be good news in Ramallah, notwithstanding their protestations otherwise.
  • African Pivot: When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Africa, the New York Times reported that he was looking for UN votes. Well, he may have got them: More Sub-Saharan African countries abstained on today’s UNESCO resolution (seven: Guinea, Togo, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda) than voted with the Palestinians (six: Chad, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan), as pointed out by the Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon. Israel’s outgoing foreign ministry director-general Dore Gold, who played a role in strengthening Israel’s ties with Guinea, welcomed what he called a new trend.
  •  Argentinian President Macri’s First Pro-Israel Move?
    Though pro-Israel Argentinian president Mauricio Macri was elected almost one year ago, no major policy shifts were seen at the UN. Argentina’s move today from Yes to Abstain may be the first evidence of a new approach from Buenos Aires.

No, there are no moral prizes for abstaining on an inflammatory resolution created by dictatorships to distort the idea of human rights and religious freedom in particular. But all of the above shifts will be clearly noted in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and elsewhere. Whether these indeed become a trend remains to be seen.

About the Author
Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization in Geneva, Switzerland. An international lawyer, Neuer has been described by the Tribune de Genève as a human rights activist who is “feared and dreaded” by the world’s dictatorships. Israel's Ma’ariv newspaper ranked Neuer as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Jewish People in the World.” Hillel Neuer is a renowned speaker who has published widely, testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, and appeared on CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. On September 14, 2016, the City of Chicago adopted a resolution declaring “Hillel Neuer Day” in recognition of his work as “one of the world’s foremost human rights advocates.” In June 2018, McGill University awarded Neuer with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, citing his work as “an innovator” in “creating global platforms for courageous dissidents and champions of human rights from around the world,” and for being “a passionate advocate for human rights, fighting tirelessly against discrimination, torture, and injustice."