In an unusual move aimed at pleasing its Western critics, the Executive Council of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted overwhelmingly Friday to shelve a Soviet resolution calling for the agency to promote worldwide disarmament.
The vote reflects UNESCO's desperate campaign to try to persuade Britain and other Western nations not to follow the United States in pulling out of the controversial agency.
Approval of such disarmament resolutions in the past has enraged American and British delegates, who argued that political issues like disarmament are none of UNESCO's business.
But this time, on the last day of a six-week meeting, many delegates, eager to lean over backward to please the British, chided the Soviets for provoking trouble and voted, 33 to 6, on a motion by Nigeria, to postpone consideration of the resolution until next fall.
To a casual observer, it may not have seemed like much. But in terms of UNESCO tradition it was close to revolutionary and reflected a new attitude by many Third World delegates to swallow their pride and try to please the British and delegates of other industrialized countries in hopes of saving UNESCO.
'British Seemed Pleased'
The United States has often complained that there is an automatic majority against the West in the United Nations. Gisele Halimi, the French delegate, told a news conference that the vote Friday proved that such a majority no longer exists at UNESCO.
Indeed, members of the Executive Council came closer than ever before to meeting the wishes of Western nations. It was not clear, however, that UNESCO has reformed itself enough to persuade Britain to remain a member.
"The British delegates seemed pleased by what has gone on during the last six weeks," a UNESCO official said. "But they, of course, will not make the decision. It will be a political decision, and it will be made by Madame Thatcher."
Just before the United States officially withdrew at the end of last year, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent UNESCO a notice of Britain's intent to withdraw by the end of 1985.
Director to Stay
And, despite all its attempts at reform, UNESCO now seems further than ever from making the one reform that would be sure to keep Britain in--the ouster of the 64-year-old Amadou Mahtar M'Bow as director general of the agency.
Some critics had hoped that the French government would use its influence to persuade African delegates to pressure M'Bow, a former Senegalese minister of education, into quitting. But during the six-week meeting of the Executive Council, Halimi, the French delegate, dashed all such hopes. In her first speech, she made it clear that the French government believes that it makes more sense to pressure M'Bow to undertake reforms.
M'Bow is now regarded as certain to stay in office until his term ends at the end of 1987. The great fear within UNESCO is that if Britain--followed by Japan, Holland, West Germany and Denmark--follows the U.S. lead and walks out, the agency could be dead.
During the meeting of the Executive Council, Halimi played a significant role in persuading Third World delegates to refrain from introducing and supporting resolutions that would antagonize Britain and other Western countries.
Asked at a news conference Friday if she thought Britain will now stay, Halimi said: "The British delegates have shown good will and good faith in negotiating reforms here. Britain would not leave just for the sake of leaving."
But she added that the British government will probably not make any decision until it reviews the resolutions that are adopted at the general conference of all 160 UNESCO members in Sofia, Bulgaria, in October.
The U.S. government pulled out of UNESCO after accusing it of mismanagement and of involving itself in political issues like disarmament. American newspapers supported the Reagan Administration's move, partly out of irritation over years of UNESCO encouragement of a so-called new world information order that many Americans believed would hamper the work of foreign correspondents.
The American withdrawal created a difficult financial problem for UNESCO, for the United States contributed 25% of the agency's budget.