UNESCO Says U.S. Funding Freeze Won’t Hurt ‘World Heritage’ Applications, But Some Lawmakers Worry

By Patrick Goodenough | January 10, 2014 | 4:14am EST

Mission Conception, one of five Spanish frontier missions in San Antonio, Texas applying for UNESCO World Heritage listing. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO says that the fact the United States is in arrears with its contributions – the result of a funding cutoff in response to its admission of “Palestine” – will have no bearing on pending applications to have several historical sites in the U.S. declared World Heritage sites next year.

That confirmation, in an email from Paris early Friday in response to queries, effectively undercuts the arguments being made by some lawmakers who are pushing for an omnibus spending bill being negotiated ahead of a Jan. 15 deadline to include funding for UNESCO’s World Heritage program.

Although the U.S. cannot restore funding to UNESCO itself without Congress providing a waiver to the law mandating the cutoff, these lawmakers want a contribution made specifically to its World Heritage program.

Their argument: Failure to do so may harm the applications for a number of sites, including Franciscan frontier missions in Texas and Louisiana’s Poverty Point, to be added to the World Heritage list.

In fact, consideration of a site for World Heritage listing is based on clear criteria that have to do with intrinsic cultural or natural value, beauty and significance. (The 21 U.S. sites currently on the list include the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon National Park.)

Neither those criteria nor the World Heritage operational guidelines give any indication that a country’s financial standing with UNESCO plays any role in the decision-making process.

Asked, “Would the fact that a state party is in arrears to UNESCO and/or the World Heritage Fund in any way affect the consideration of sites in that country for World Heritage listing?” UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams replied Friday that nominations for listing “are not affected by the fact that dues are owing.”

Last July, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to include in State and foreign operations appropriations legislation a provision introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to fund the World Heritage program.

In a letter to House and Senate Appropriation Committee chairmen and ranking members last month, Landrieu urged them to ensure that provision was included in the appropriations bill now being finalized.

She suggested that funding was important if the application to have Poverty Point, an ancient civilization site in her state, recognized as a World Heritage site, along with other sites nominated in 13 other states.

“I strongly encourage you to keep this provision in the final bill to preserve Poverty Point’s chances to obtain the recognition it deserves,” she wrote. “If this provision is not included, we will unfairly withhold real economic benefit from 14 states.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) told Texas Public Radio this week that he and others believe that if the U.S. does not fund the World Heritage program, then the five Spanish missions in San Antonio and other sites nominated for listing “essentially will not get fair consideration and due consideration, because we’re not dues-paying members for that specific program.”

In a lobbying note to lawmakers last fall, the non-profit organization Preservation Action stated that if funding is withheld “it is possible that U.S. sites may not receive proper consideration for World Heritage designation, which would result in a loss of many potential jobs.”

The issue has arisen because UNESCO in 2011 voted to give membership to the Palestinian territories, triggering a U.S. funding cutoff in line with a 1990 law barring financial support for “the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

The administration sought waiver authority to enable it to resume funding, without success, and last November the U.S. lost its voting rights as a result of being two years in arrears.

Congressional supporters of the cutoff, which cost UNESCO 22 percent of its operating budget, say it worked in deterring the Palestinian Authority’s U.N. membership drive.

Eyeing an economic benefit

U.S. arrears for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 amount to some $156 million, and the administration in its FY 2014 budget request asked for $77.8 million for UNESCO funding.

The lawmakers worried about the World Heritage listing applications are setting their sights much lower, looking for the House and Senate to include in appropriations legislation about $700,000 specifically for the World Heritage program.

In her letter, Landrieu recalled that in past years the U.S. had funded the World Heritage program “even when we were not paying dues to other organizations with which World Heritage is affiliated.”

She was referring to the almost two decade period during which the U.S. was not a member of UNESCO. The Reagan administration withdrew from the organization in 1984, concerned about mismanagement and an agenda viewed as anti-Western. President Bush took the U.S. back into UNESCO in 2003, saying important reforms had taken place under its then-Japanese director-general.

In his radio interview Castro raised the same point about U.S. funding for the World Heritage program even while not a member of UNESCO.

He acknowledged that “right now quite honestly there isn’t the political will to trump” the UNESCO funding cutoff, but said he believed there would be bipartisan support “to put that political issue aside, and participate in this World Heritage site, which really is a cultural issue, rather than a political issue.”

World Heritage listing is prized not just for the recognition and protection it entails, but because it can also bring economic rewards.

Castro cited a 2013 study estimating that World Heritage listing for the San Antonio missions could increase economic activity linked to the sites by between $44 and $105 million by 2025.

But Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer in a National Review article Thursday pointed to three studies, in 2007, 2009 and 2011, raising doubts about the economic benefits for sites acquiring World Heritage listing.

Schaefer argued against providing partial funding for UNESCO in the way Landrieu is advocating.

“Weakening funding prohibitions for U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians – especially when the exemption does not involve U.S. security interests – would invite additional exemptions down the road and signal that the U.S. lacks resolve in opposing Palestinian membership in U.N. organizations prior to reconciliation with Israel,” he said.

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