Issue 341: 25 Nations Endorse UN Watch Bid to Expel Syria from UNESCO Rights Committees

Today: UN Watch Exposes Shocking UNESCO Election of Assad Regime

in New York Times, Reuters, AP, Le Figaro, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal

GENEVA, Jan. 25 – UN Watch released diplomatic documents today revealing that its campaign to expel Syria from two UNESCO human rights committees has clinched support from a key group of 25 nations led by the U.S. government, and will come to a vote at a meeting next month in Paris.

UN Watch’s release today sparked diplomatic comments and news reports around the globe, with articles in the New York Times, Le Figaro, Reuters, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. (See articles below.)

For the first time in its history, the UN’s culture and education agency is preparing to condemn Syria for gross human rights violations, and to expel it from committees to which it was elected just two months ago.

After UNESCO in November elected Syria, which also sits on its 58-member executive board, to committees that judge human rights complaints and regulate NGOs, UN Watch launched a campaign of 55 parliamentarians, religious groups and human rights activists urging member states to reverse the decision.

In response, according to diplomatic documents obtained exclusively by UN Watch, a U.S.-led coalition that includes Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, Qatar and Kuwait filed a motion and related memo with UNESCO to request that its February board meeting “review” Syria’s controversial membership.

Reports today indicate that the bid is meeting stiff resistance from Syria’s sympathizers as well as from other countries interested in preserving UNESCO’s traditional way of doing business.

UNESCO’s board, which wil decide the matter, recently welcomed serial human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan and Russia.Syria was already on the board, as were other countries with poor human rights records, including Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Belarus, China, Vietnam and Algeria.

In Today’s News:

“What is shocking is how UNESCO ever decided in the first place to legitimize the regime of Syrian President Bashar al- Assad — which is shooting its own people in cold blood — by elevating it to a committee that judges human-rights issues on a global scale,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based human-rights monitoring group UN Watch…Bloomberg News, Jan. 25, 2012


U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, said that a growing group of countries—western and Arab—want to unseat Syria from the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations. The committee deals with multiple issues, but has a strong human rights component.”
Washington Post, Associated Press, Jan. 25, 2012

“I am not aware that UNESCO has ever before expelled a member state from one of its committees, or passed a resolution condemning Syria, so both actions would be unprecedented,” Geneva-based NGO UN Watch said in a statement. An Arab diplomat said it was possible the board could condemn Syria, which would probably be backed by Arab League states that have parted ways with Assad, although agreeing to Damascus’ expulsion could prove more difficult.”  — Reuters, MSNBC, Jan. 25, 2012


“Une pétition a été lancée à la mi-décembre par l’ONG UN Watch. Selon celle-ci, une quinzaine de pays, dont les États-Unis, la France, la Grande-Bretagne et le Qatar se sont mobilisés pour tenter de revenir sur la décision du 11 novembre et exclure Damas des deux comités concernés.”  — Le Figaro, Jan. 25, 2012

“The letter to the head of UNESCO’s executive board was obtained and made public by UN Watch, an NGO that had opposed Syria’s membership. UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said regimes like that in Syria often use membership on such boards to boost their own legitimacy, particularly within their countries. Canada’s involvement in the effort to censure Syria sends a strong signal, Neuer added, and shows the government is determined not to let the UN be used for propaganda or undermined by human rights violators. “Canada has been on the forefront of most worthwhile initiatives to keep gross violators accountable,” he said.  — Vanouver Sun, Jan. 25, 2012

“A Western diplomat said the Arab group was now embarrassed by its choice of Syria, a decision that soon became controversial… It is not clear how Syria’s membership can be overturned, because there is no precedent for it and no procedure, Unesco officials said. But diplomats involved said the Executive Board should be able to act as it saw fit.”  — The New York Times, Jan. 25, 2012


Timeline: The UN Watch Campaign to Expel Syria from UNESCO

Nov. 11 – By a consensus decision, UNESCO’s 58-member executive board, including major democracies, elects Syria to two human rights committees, ratifying the Arab group’s nomination.

Nov. 23 UN Watch launches campaign urging democracies to reverse Syria’s election after story is first reported in the U.S. by UN Watch obtains a renunciation by UNESCO director Irina Bokova of of the Assad regime’s election. UN Watch’s protest is reported by CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Fox News, and the Tribune de Genève.

Dec. 2 – In testimony before the UN Human Rights Council plenary, UN Watch formally calls on UNESCO to “cancel its recent decision to elect Syria to two separate committees that deal with human rights. Even the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, concedes that this is wrong. Her spokesperson told UN Watch: ‘Given the developments in Syria, the director-general does not see how this country can contribute to the work of the committees.'” UN Watch submits the UNHRC condemnation of Syria to UNESCO, requesting Syria be expelled forthwith.

Dec. 15 – UN Watch launches campaign of of 55 parliamentarians, human rights groups and religious groups calling on UNESCO to reverse the election of Syria, and sends appeal to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and UK Foreign Minister William Hague.

Jan. 6 – UN Watch receives notice from the British Foreign Office that it will seek to cancel Syria’s “abhorrent” membership. In an email to UN Watch, the UK said it “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. We have therefore joined with other countries in putting forward an item for the first meeting of the Executive Board at which we will seek to explicitly address Syria’s membership of the body.” The UK also expressed hope that other members of the executive board will join London in ending what it called “this abhorrent [and] anomalous situation.”  Al ArabiyaFox News and the Jerusalem Post report the story.

Jan. 25 UN Watch reveals an exclusive copy of the motion, memo and member states seeking to condemn and expel Syria. The story is reported by the New York Times, AP, Reuters, and Bloomberg News, and covered in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Le Figaro, and many other newspapers.

UN Watch