Diplomatic Intrigue as Committee Approves Kosovo’s Bid to Join UNESCO

UPDATE: Kosovo’s bid failed on November 9, with 92 votes in favor, 50 votes against and 29 abstentions. They needed at least 94 votes to win admission.

Here is a totally overlooked story that is dripping with diplomatic intrigue.

Yesterday, UNESCO’s executive committee narrowly approved Kosovo’s bid to join the UN agency in a hotly contested election. UNESCO, the UN agency best known for the World Heritage program, also runs important scientific and education projects around the world, from Tsunami early warning systems, to Holocaust education, to fighting the trafficking in stolen antiquities by ISIS, to restoring mosques and mausoleums destroyed by extremists in Timbuktu.

Kosovo’s bid for membership is part of its ongoing attempt for international recognition as a state independent from Serbia. Serbia (and its historic ally Russia) disagree.

UNESCO is comprised of most UN member states, including Russia and Serbia. New states can join only after the 58 member executive committee sends the application to the 195 member General Conference, which has final say. Yesterday the executive board did that with a 27 to 14 vote, with 14 abstentions. Now, Kosovo’s quest for membership to UNESCO will be turned over to UNESCO member states for a vote at its General Conference in November.

And with that move, the UNESCO has suddenly at the heart of some second-tier diplomatic squabbles, the implications and result of which could have far-reaching implications.

Yet Another USA-Russia Clash

Russia is a longtime ally of Serbia, which strenuously opposes both Kosovo independence in general and bid at UNESCO in particular. The USA, on the other hand, has long championed Kosovo independence and it is one of 111 countries that recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

For years, the Security Council has been the venue in which Russia and the USA clash over Kosovo’s independence —  or what is known in UN circles as “final status.” But those debates have gone nowhere because of the veto. The UNESCO bid shifts the venue of this debate to a forum where no country holds a veto.

The pro-Kosovo crowd won this round at the executive committee, but it will be interesting to see the extent to which Russia tries to influence the vote in the General Conference. Either way, the coming vote in the General Conference will be the latest manifestation (albeit a comparatively low stakes one) of the ever heightening global competition between Putin and Obama.

Implications for the Race to Replace Ban Ki Moon

UNESCO’s director general, the former Bulgarian foreign minister Irina Bokova, is a candidate to replace Ban Ki Moon as secretary general. She’s considered a frontrunner for the post. To win, she needs to earn the support (or at least, avoid the opposition) of the the five permanent members of the Security Council, including Russia. Accordingly, Bokova can’t be seen as favoring this decision one way or the other. But if Kosovo’s bid is successful, the key question is whether Russia will punish the institution over the actions of its member states, which is what the United States did five years ago when UNESCO admitted Palestine as a member state. (See below).

A Very Awkward Spot for the USA

Three years ago, the USA opposed Palestine’s bid to the join UNESCO, arguing that such a move would be counterproductive to the peace process on the ground.  UNESCO member states overwhelmingly approved Palestine’s membership anyway. This time around, the USA voted for Kosovo’s membership, even though the rationale for opposing Palestine’s bid is basically the same: that membership to UN bodies can’t substitute for direct negotiations.

Another complicating issue is that the USA won’t actually be able to vote for Kosovo’s membership when the measure goes to the full UNESCO general conference next month. This is because the USA lost its voting rights there after failing to pay its dues to UNESCO for the last two years. And…wait for this…the USA did not paid its dues because a decades-old law prohibits the US government from funding any UN body that includes Palestine as a member.  In other words, the USA can’t vote for Kosovo’s bid for membership at UNESCO because Palestine is a member state.

So…Stay tuned. The vote at the General Conference comes in early November.