Open letter to UNESCO

8 March 2005

One of openDemocracy’s authors, Omar Barghouti has written an open letter to another openDemocracy author, Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura.

We received a copy of the letter the other day, and I found it interesting. UNESCO has supported the creation of a joint Palestinian-Israeli scientific organisation, which Barghouti (a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) objects strongly to.

He writes: “Normal relations between peoples can only flourish after oppression has ended, not before and not as a prelude to it. From our perspective, the only joint projects that ought to be encouraged in the process of addressing injustice are those that contribute to resisting this injustice”

Barghouti says joint projects “that claim to be apolitical” are blatantly politicized by their blind eye towards “colonial oppression”. I think its awfully sad to be discouraging cultural and scientific work with good intentions. Call me naïve, but I don’t see how building bridges between Israelis and Palestinians would necessarily inhibit the struggle for peace. Spot on dialogue would be preferred, but while we wait for it to happen between official bodies, isn’t it worthwhile to connect the people who live and work on either side of the conflict? Sure, it's political, but maybe that's what's good about it.

Barghouti wants UNESCO to act as it did in South Africa during apartheid when scientists, athletes, artists, academics and businesspeople were all subject to a boycott. Read the letter, see what you think...

Between South Africa and Israel: UNESCO’s Double-Standards
An Open Letter to UNESCO

From: Omar Barghouti and Jacqueline Sfeir

Mr Koïchiro Matsuura,
Director-General of UNESCO


7, Place de Fontenoy
75352 PARIS 07 SP, France

27 February 2005

Dear Mr. Matsuura,

On behalf of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), we are writing to express our deep concern about UNESCO’s recent support for establishing a joint Palestinian-Israeli scientific organization, which in our view marks a serious setback to the cause of just peace in Palestine. 

Under the noble aim of the World Science Day to “help focus the attention of young people on science and how its goals are congruent with their own aspirations,” another message, which is subtle, yet highly damaging politically, is being communicated. Through supporting the establishment of the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (IPSO), UNESCO is actually placing itself at odds with the decision of the Palestinian Council for Higher Education which has repeatedly rejected “technical and scientific cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli universities.” This move also conflicts with the Palestinian call for boycotting Israeli academic institutions which was endorsed by tens of the most important unions, associations and organizations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, including the Federation of Unions of Palestinian Universities’ Professors and Employees.[1] Furthermore, by blessing IPSO, UNESCO is providing an international cover for a thinly veiled Israeli attempt to improve its image in the world and its status in UN organizations without having to comply with international law, which calls for an end to its illegal occupation, among other forms of its oppression against the people of Palestine.

Seemingly innocent activities with noble aims are increasingly used, sometimes with good intentions and often without, to give the impression that if Palestinians and Israelis jointly work on scientific, environmental, cultural or health projects, they somehow make peace more possible or more attainable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Joint projects that claim to be apolitical are the most blatantly politicized since they deliberately disregard the context of colonial oppression and deceivingly imply the possibility of achieving peace without addressing the root causes of conflict. Ostensibly apolitical collaborations actually substitute the transient, superficial gestures of peace for the real struggle needed to achieve a just and lasting peace. Consequently, they fail to serve the cause of peace.

Normal relations between peoples can only flourish after oppression has ended, not before and not as a prelude to it. From our perspective, the only joint projects that ought to be encouraged in the process of addressing injustice are those that contribute to resisting this injustice. At the very least, any sincere joint project must be fundamentally based on the principle of equality and the rejection of military occupation and racial discrimination. Unfortunately, both essential elements are glaringly missing from the IPSO project description and your endorsement of it. UNESCO’s support for IPSO therefore legitimizes the attempt to convey a false perception of the possibility of peaceful coexistence and scientific cooperation despite oppression, rather than promoting all efforts to end this oppression.

PACBI’s call for academic and cultural boycott of Israel is specifically premised upon Israel’s systematic and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people which takes three basic forms: its illegal occupation of Palestinians territories; its system of racial discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens; and its denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties, in contravention of UN resolutions.

Calling for sanctions under such circumstances is far from unique to Palestinians. During apartheid rule in South Africa, the United Nations established a regime of sanctions that eventually brought down the racist regime there and helped create democratic rule. South African scientists, athletes, artists, academics and businesspeople were all subject to boycott then. As we all know, UNESCO played a distinguished and widely commended role in promoting sanctions and various forms of boycott against apartheid South Africa, by organizing no less than eight international conferences and seminars addressing a wide range of topics, including “solidarity,” “resistance against occupation, oppression and apartheid,” “sports boycott,” “sanctions against racist South Africa” and the “educational needs of the victims of apartheid.”[2] The most significant event that triggered sanctions in that case was the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1971, which denounced South Africa’s occupation of Namibia as illegal. When the ICJ issued a similar advisory opinion on July 9th 2004 condemning Israel’s colonial wall and the entire occupation regime as violating international law, Palestinians, Arabs and indeed all peace-loving people around the globe were hoping that the UN and its institutions would launch appropriate punitive measures against Israel to bring about its compliance with UN resolutions.

Some conscientious opinion leaders and organizations have endorsed various forms of such measures. Human-rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has recently drawn many similarities between Israel and apartheid South Africa, calling for boycotts against the former similar to those applied on the latter.[3] Last week, the World Council of Churches has urged its members to “give serious consideration to economic measures” against Israel to bring an end to its occupation of Palestinian territories.[4] It also praised the action of the U.S. Presbyterian church that has started a process of “selective divestment” from companies linked to the illegal Israeli occupation. Several universities in the U.S. and Europe have started considering divesting from Israel or applying selective boycotts against its institutions. British celebrities and Members of Parliament have launched a campaign against Israel’s colonial wall and some have gone as far as calling for outright sanctions against Israel.[5]

Alas, some UN organizations chose instead to overlook or undermine the gravity of Israel’s own “occupation, oppression and apartheid,” thereby encouraging its belligerent flouting of international law. UNESCO’s support for joint Palestinian-Israeli projects that completely ignore the reality of occupation and oppression on the ground is therefore inexplicable and disappointing.

Since Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli scientists and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying their state’s oppression of the Palestinians, or have been complicit in this oppression through their silence, we feel that the international community, led by the UN and its organizations, ought to call for boycotts and sanctions against Israeli academic and scientific institutions.

In the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice, we, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon UNESCO to immediately withdraw its support for IPSO and any other similar effort that assists, cooperates with or otherwise promotes Israeli scientific or cultural institutions until Israel desists from violating Palestinian human rights and fully complies with the pertinent precepts of international law and UN resolutions.


Omar Barghouti, Independent Researcher and Choreographer; Founding Member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

Dr. Jacqueline Sfeir, Educator; Member of the Advisory Board of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)
[email protected]


[1] The full text of the Palestinian Call for Boycott -- issued by PACBI and supported by tens of the most important Palestinian unions, associations and organizations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza -- can be found at: http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/news/article178. For recent articles arguing for academic and cultural boycott of Israel, refer to: http://www.bricup.org.uk/home/articles.html

[2] For a listing of the eight UNESCO sponsored seminars and conferences against apartheid South Africa, organized between 1975 and 1991, please refer to: http://www.anc.org.za/un/conf.html

[3] Desmond Tutu, Apartheid in the Holy Land, The Guardian, April 29, 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/comment/0,10551,706911,00.html

[4] World Council of Churches Press Release: WCC central committee encourages consideration of economic measures for peace in Israel/Palestine, 21 February 2005. http://www2.wcc-coe.org/pressreleasesge.nsf/index/pr-cc-05-08.html

[5] See for example the call for sanctions issued by War on Want and supported by British rock star Roger Waters at: http://www.waronwant.org/?lid=9301

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