Cash-strapped UNESCO gives Saudi king its highest honorary medal

UN group, which lost US funding after admitting ‘Palestine’ as a member last year, hails Abdullah for enhancing ‘the culture of dialogue and peace’

Saudi King Abdullah accepts a UNESCO medal from Irina Bokova in 2012. (photo credit: Ahmed Al Omran, via Twitter)
Saudi King Abdullah accepts a UNESCO medal from Irina Bokova in 2012. (photo credit: Ahmed Al Omran, via Twitter)

UNESCO, the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization which last year lost its hefty US funding after it admitted “Palestine” as a full member, has awarded its highest honorary recognition to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for “enhancing the culture of dialogue and peace.”

The UNESCO “Gold Medal,” Saudi media reported, was bestowed upon the king last week by the organization’s visiting director-general, Irina Bokova. Participating in their meeting, the Saudi Press Agency reported, was a group of UNESCO ambassadors that included the envoy from Palestine.

Bokova, according to a UNESCO press release, praised the king for “efforts to implement his ambitious reform and to invest in the people of his country.”

King Abdullah accepts the UNESCO medal from Irina Bokova last week. (photo credit: Ahmed Al Omran, via Twitter)
King Abdullah accepts the UNESCO medal from Irina Bokova last week. (photo credit: Ahmed Al Omran, via Twitter)

The award comes, ironically, as Saudi Arabia closed its Cairo embassy Saturday and recalled its ambassador in a dispute with Egypt over its arrest of an Egyptian human rights lawyer. Hundreds of Egyptians had been protesting for days outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed el-Gezawi.

Relatives and human rights groups say he was detained for allegedly insulting the Saudi king. His family said he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting Abdullah. However he was not notified of the court’s ruling ahead of his Saudi trip.

UNESCO lost an estimated $80 million per year in donations after the US withdrew funding last year following the acceptance of Palestine. Its website features a prominent appeal for funds to help it “build peace in the minds of Men & Women.”

The Saudi king last October gave $5 million to UNESCO as initial funding for a “Global Program for Dialogue and A Culture of Peace.”

The US, which funded a little over a fifth of UNESCO’s budget, was legally required to withdraw its funding after the “Palestine” vote, in compliance with legislation that bars funding of organizations that give Palestine full-member status. Last month, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice urged Congress to cooperate with the administration in waiving the restriction, but her plea was met with little enthusiasm.

Bokova has also appealed to the US to reinstate funding. “UNESCO is the only UN Agency with a mandate to promote Holocaust Education worldwide. Using funding provided by the United States and Israel, UNESCO is developing curricula to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten,” she said in a statement last November. “Last February I led a historic visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp with more than 150 political and religious leaders, mostly from Arab and Muslim countries. I still recall the words of Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, who said: ‘We must teach our young people in mosques, churches and synagogues what happened here.'”

Last month, UNESCO named Israeli biologist Dr. Naama Geva-Zatorsky, of the Weizmann Institute, as Europe’s top young researcher of the year for her work on using probiotics to treat disease.

However, UNESCO bizarrely neglected to detail Israeli achievements — including the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Ada Yonath — in its latest five-year global Science Report. The 2010 report also failed to give Israel a country profile or a separate listing in any of its comprehensive regional descriptions.

Earlier this year, Bokova promised Israeli government officials and representatives of American Jewish organizations that she would update the online version report with a chapter on Israel’s many achievements in science. However, when last examined, the report had not been updated.

In its latest world Human Rights Report, released last April and covering 2010, the US State Department listed “significant human rights problems” in the kingdom including: “no right to change the government peacefully; torture and physical abuse…; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; denial of fair and public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and severe restrictions on religious freedom.”

“Violence against women and a lack of equal rights for women, violations of the rights of children, trafficking in persons, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common,” it reads

On the plus side, it reported, “Increased efforts to protect women and children against domestic violence through the National Family Safety Program, as well as the Human Rights Commission, reflected a significant human rights achievement.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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