Friday, March 27, 2009

Class Exercise: ExBrd Working Group on Old City of Jerusalem

Last night in our UNESCO Seminar we did a role playing exercise based on a real negotiation that took place in May, 2007 in the context of a Special Session of the Executive Board of UNESCO.

The Old City of Jerusalem has been inscribed in UNESCO's World Heritage List since 1981. There is a ramp leading from the square in which the Wailing Wall (perhaps the most sacred place in Judaism) is located to the mount above where the Al Aqsa Mosque (which includes the Dome of the Rock), one of the holiest sites in Islam.

A retaining wall supporting the ramp failed and the Israeli authorities began archaelogical works prior to restoring the ramp. The communication between Israeli and Palestinian archaeological authorities has long been broken, and Palestinians were concerned as to the scope and purpose of those works, which they felt should have been under Arab auspices; the site of course holds remains of more than 1000 years of Muslim rule and occupation. The World Heritage Center was also experiencing difficulties communicating with the Israeli authorities.

Arab delegates asked for the Special Session of the Executive Board to review the situation. A subcommittee of the Executive Board was formed to draft a resolution on the matter, to be considered by the entire 58 member Board. The subcommittee consisted of Delegates from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Norway, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States as well as the Deputy Director General of UNESCO. In our role playing exercise, students took the roles of these participants.

A team consisting of the Director a staffer from the World Heritage Center, the Director-General of ICCROM and the President of ICOMOS had previously visited Jerusalem and investigated the situation; their report was made available to the subcommittee.

The purpose of the exercise was to help the students understand the complexity of such a negotiation and the many levels at which it take place.

Of course, a common concern among all the Delegates was the preservation of a site which is of huge cultural importance to billions of people, and which is must be managed to accommodate millions of visitors.

Underlying the negotiation of course was a concern for the potential for violent confrontations in Jerusalem. The Al Aqsa Intifada was ignited at the very location under discussion. And of course, the negotiation was conducted in the context of the overall Peace Process in which Norway and the United States have played key roles.

The participants in the Working Group were unanimous in their statements that the issue should not be dealt with as a political issue, yet of course the Delegates were all diplomats of ambassadorial rank, and the venue was not the specialized agencies dealing with monuments and heritage sites, nor the World Heritage Center, but rather the governing body of UNESCO itself.

Students discussed the fact that each participant in the negotiation faced domestic constituencies that were very concerned with the condition of the sites and the political contexts. Israel's government was facing upcoming elections and the Palestinian authority was soon to dissolve in civil war; a large portion of the Jordanian population describes itself as Palestinian.

The media was characterized as influential in the negotiations even if not present. While U.S. media were silent on the situation, it was extensively covered in Israeli, Palestinian and Arab media. While the actual conduct of the negotiation would not be revealed, the results would be publicized in the countries of several of the delegates.

Moreover, Delegates were likely to be concerned with groups of nations, as the European Delegate might have been concerned with representing the views of European powers, and the Arab nations with representing other Arab and Islamic nations.

It was recognized that much of the work of the committee would be done outside of the meeting room, that the Delegates were likely to have received instructions from their governments, and that there were possibilities of incentives or sanctions being imposed on governments as a result of the negotiations, and that there were possibilities of incentives being offered or sanctions being threatened in the process of the negotiations. Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are all heavily dependent on European and American support.

While the secretariats of UNESCO and other involved organizations were concerned with the integrity of the organizational processes, they must also have been concerned with the potential benefits and threats implied by the negotiation to their own organizations. The key organizational members were the heads of their respective organizations, rather than lower level technical staff.

And of course the Delegates were individuals, with their own ideological positions. One at least was probably chosen both as a neutral party and because of the respect he had earned as a skilled and experienced diplomat. Two of the Secretariat members have since been mentioned as attractive candidates in this year's election of a new UNESCO Director General. And of course, while all were internationally experienced, each Delegate came from his/her own cultural background -- Arab, Israeli, Scandinavian, Texan, etc. and might have understood the negotiations in part from that cultural background.

We reviewed the actual Resolution that had been approved
  • which documented the previous agreements that set the stage for the current resolution
  • recognized the universal cultural importance of the site
  • acknowledged the work of the team that had done the site visit
  • referred future work on the issue to the World Heritage Center
  • called upon Israel to provide more information and coordinate with Islamic authorities on the works, and
  • thanked the Secretariat for its work
The students agreed that this resolution probably represented a result which did not fully achieve the objectives of any party, but which all parties could accept. It clearly represented a substantive and informative product of detailed negotiation. The United States diplomats thought the negotiation very successful, but we had little insight as to the satisfaction of other Delegates in the outcome.

The seven students and two coordinators had a lively, two hour discussion greatly facilitated by the fact that all of the students had prepared for the class. A fairly extensive set of case study materials had been made available for their review prior to the class, but most had gone beyond those materials.

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