Double Standards on South Africa and Israel

Mr Koïchiro Matsuura,
Director-General of UNESCO
7, Place de Fontenoy
75352 PARIS 07 SP, France

2 March 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)


[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:
For recent articles arguing for academic and cultural boycott
of Israel, refer to:

[2] For a listing of the eight
UNESCO sponsored seminars and conferences against apartheid South
Africa, organized between 1975 and 1991, please refer to:

[3] Desmond Tutu, Apartheid
in the Holy Land,
The Guardian, April 29, 2002.,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

[5] See for example the call
for sanctions issued by War on Want and supported by British
rock star Roger Waters at: