Obama Wants to Restore U.S. Funding for UNESCO, After It Admitted ‘Palestine’

Patrick Goodenough | February 16, 2012 | 4:59am EST
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The Palestinian flag is raised outside UNESCO headquarters in Paris during a formal ceremony on December 13, 2011, marking the full admission of “Palestine” into the organization. Among those present are UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. (Photo: UNESCO/Danica Bijeljac)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s attempt to circumvent U.S. law that bans funding for any U.N. agency that admits “Palestine” will send a “disastrous message” that U.N. bodies will continue receiving American money irrespective of their actions, a top Republican lawmaker has warned.

Last November, the U.S. government cut funding to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after it became the first U.N. agency to grant full membership to “Palestine.”

A U.S. law enacted in 1990 bars funding to “the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

A second law, passed four years later, prohibits “voluntary or assessed contribution to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

The funding cutoff was a severe blow to the Paris-based organization, which gets 22 percent of its operating budget from the U.S. – amounting to around $80 million a year – plus a further $3-$4 million a year in extra-budgetary funds.

It also sent a clear signal to other U.N. bodies considering applications by Palestinian leaders, prompting U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to voice concern about the financial implications of admitting “Palestine.”

Hours after Ban did so, Palestinian officials said they were abandoning a previously-announced plan to follow their successful UNESCO bid with applications to join a string of other U.N. agencies.

In its fiscal year 2013 budget request released on Monday, however, the State Department requested $79 million for UNESCO.

At a briefing, the State Department’s deputy secretary for management and resources, Thomas Nides, explained that President Obama wanted waiver authority that would allow the U.S. to continue supporting UNESCO in the future.

“We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver – and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver,” he said.

Elsewhere in the budget request, a further $40.5 million is listed under the heading of “contingent requirements.” A footnote appended to that entry states, “The Department of State intends to work with Congress to seek legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO. Should the Congress pass this legislation, this funding is sufficient to cover the FY 2013 UNESCO assessment and the balance of the FY 2012 assessment.”

On a visit to Capitol Hill to urge a restoration of U.S. funding, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova meets with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on December 15, 2011. (Photo: UNESCO/George Papagiannis)

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the move.

“The Palestinian leadership’s dangerous statehood scheme at the U.N. was dealt a significant blow last year after the U.S. cut off funding to UNESCO due to its admission of ‘Palestine,’” she said in a statement Wednesday.

“Resuming U.S. funding would give a green light for other U.N. bodies to follow in UNESCO’s footsteps and support the Palestinian statehood push.”

Ros-Lehtinen said, “Any effort to walk back this funding cutoff will pave the way for the Palestinian leadership’s unilateral statehood scheme to drive on, and sends a disastrous message that the U.S. will fund UN bodies no matter what irresponsible decisions they make.”

Uphill battle looms

The administration has made engagement with the U.N. a key foreign policy priority, and from the outset the State Department made it clear that its was complying with the laws requiring defunding reluctantly.

The UNESCO funding issue is certain to arise when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before Ros-Lehtinen’s committee on Feb. 29, at a hearing focusing on the foreign relations budget for FY2013.

It’s unclear how much success the administration’s push for a waiver will have on Capitol Hill, where opposition to the Palestinians’ attempt to seek U.N. recognition and membership ahead of a negotiated settlement of the conflict with Israel crosses the aisle.

A bipartisan House resolution passed by a 407-6 vote last summer called on the administration “to oppose recognition of a Palestinian state by other nations, within the United Nations, and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”  The Senate passed a companion resolution by unanimous consent.

One hundred and forty-one House Republicans have co-sponsored legislation authored by Ros-Lehtinen which among other provisions would prohibit U.S. funding for any U.N. entity that upgrades the status of the Palestinian observer mission to the U.N.

In a Democratic initiative, meanwhile, Rep Steve Israel (N.Y.) last September introduced legislation blocking U.S. foreign military financing to countries that vote in favor of U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. The bill was co-sponsored by three Democrats – Reps. Robert Brady (Pa.), Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Steve Rothman (N.J.) – and a Republican, Rep. Dennis Ross (Fla.).

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited Capitol Hill in December to urge a restoration of the funding.

In addition to Ros-Lehtinen, she meet with the Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.) and another Democrat on the committee, Rep. Russ Carnahan (Mo.).

“Representatives Berman and Carnahan expressed their support for the organization, but cautioned against any immediate change in the current status in light of the political nature of the issues that led to the funding cut,” Bokova’s office said in a statement after the visit.

(After a visit to Israel last fall, Carnahan assured Jewish leaders in Missouri that he was opposed to Palestinian efforts to achieve “an end run around the peace process” by going to the U.N.)

Bokova also met with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for spending on the State Department and foreign operations.

“Senator Leahy has been outspoken in his support of UNESCO and has actively sought a political solution to reverse the funding cut,” the UNESCO statement said, but also noted that Leahy was “quick to suppress any expectation that a waiver of the law could pass the Congress any time soon.”

The two laws from the 1990s which mandated the funding cut were passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

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