U.S. Funding on the Line As UNESCO Mulls Membership for ‘Palestine’

Patrick Goodenough | October 26, 2011 | 5:15am EDT
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UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France (Photo Michel Ravassard/UNESCO)

(CNSNews.com) – The United Nations’ cultural agency has begun a high-level conference that will decide on an application for membership for “Palestine” – a move that could lead to a legally-mandated severing of U.S. funding.

Unless intensive lobbying results in the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) withdrawing its request, the application is expected to achieve the required two-thirds majority in a vote by the General Conference of the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Following a vote by UNESCO’s executive board early this month, the General Conference – which meets every two years and brings together all 193 member states – will take up the Palestinian issue during the session that began Tuesday and runs through November 10.

P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ application for U.N. recognition is still being considered by a Security Council committee, but he has decided to move ahead with applications to join individual U.N. specialized agencies and bodies in the meantime, with UNESCO first in line.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a letter requesting recognition of Palestine as a state as he addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. (AP/Richard Drew)

If successful, the bid would compel the Obama administration to cut funding, because of laws passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1990s.

Public Law 101-246 (1990) states that “[n]o funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

Public Law 103-236 Title IV (1994) 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.”

UNESCO receives 22 percent of its operating budget from the U.S., a contribution that amounts to some $80 million a year (the administration’s fiscal year 2012 request for the agency is $79 million). The U.S. also contributes a further $3.7 million each year in extra-budgetary funds.

The administration has made deeper engagement with the U.N. a key priority, and officials have been searching in recent weeks for ways to avoid a vote that would force it to cut funding to a body whose activities include promoting education, literacy and freedom of expression.

The State Department’s Mideast negotiator, David Hale, has been trying to persuade Abbas to settle for something short of full membership, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently she was “strongly making the case to members of Congress that at some point we need some flexibility because pretty soon, if we don’t pay into these organizations, we lose our right to participate and influence their actions.”

Discussions also have been held with foreign governments, although winning sufficient support from other states would be a tall order.   If all 193 members are present and cast votes, the Palestinians will need 128 votes.  As of this month, the P.A. says that 128 U.N. member states have recognized “Palestine.”

When the UNESCO executive board voted in early October in favor of the P.A. application, the U.S. managed to persuade only three other countries – Germany, Romania and Latvia – out of a total 58 to join it in voting against it.  The U.S. was unable to secure “no” votes even from such allies as Japan, South Korea, Denmark and Poland. (Fourteen countries abstained.)

The issue comes as the administration confronts a drive by Republicans in the House of Representatives to link U.S. funding for the U.N. to reforms by the world body.

Although the main focus of proposed legislation is changing the way the U.N. is funded – a move from “assessed” to “voluntary” contributions – the House bill also targets other areas, including the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition.

Personnel layoffs predicted

The prospect of a U.S. funding cutoff comes at a bad time for UNESCO. Earlier this year, the British government gave the agency notice to reform urgently, or risk losing funding from that country, amounting to almost $20 million a year. The warning followed a review of U.K. foreign aid policies, which saw several other U.N. agencies similarly cautioned, and another four defunded altogether.

Advocates of stronger U.S.-U.N. engagement are appalled at the possibility of a cutoff of U.S.  funding for UNESCO.

“Senior budget officers at UNESCO, analyzing the consequences, foresee immediate slashes in program activity, layoffs in personnel beginning in January, and other credible threats, including [to] UNESCO’s pension system,” Americans for UNESCO co-chairs Esther Coopersmith and Richard Arndt wrote in a letter to supporters earlier this month.

United Nations Foundation president Timothy Wirth argued that UNESCO’s work matters for Americans.

“Alongside its important functions facilitating peace and cooperation among nations and helping to conserve the world's cultural heritage, UNESCO is also good for American business,” he wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed.

“Through the organization, American companies such as Cisco, Intel and Microsoft have been introduced to expanding Third World markets hungry for high-tech products, and that facilitation by UNESCO has helped to create or retain thousands of American jobs.”

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. (U.N. Photo by Rick Bajornas)

“Don’t punish UNESCO, the agency’s director-general, Irina Bokova, appealed in a letter published in the Washington Post Monday.

Citing UNESCO work in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa, she said, “[t]he issue of Palestinian membership should not be allowed to derail these initiatives, which go far beyond the politics of the Middle East.”

During the 1980s, the U.S. and Britain withdrew from UNESCO, accusing the agency of mismanagement and an anti-Western political agenda. Britain returned in 1997 and President Bush restored the U.S. relationship in 2002, citing wide-ranging reforms under Bokova’s predecessor, Koichiro Matsuura.

Despite the efforts of Matsuura and Bokova, some member states continue to use UNESCO – as they do with other U.N. bodies – to promote initiatives opposed by the U.S. and other Western democracies.

In recent years these included supporting an Islamic initiative in 2006 relating to the Mohammed cartoon controversy – despite UNESCO’s mandate to promote freedom of expression – and repeated attempts to establish a life sciences prize in honor of the despotic ruler of Equatorial Guinea.

UNESCO’s board also has made decisions on heritage sites in the Middle East that have angered Israel, effectively backing Palestinian claims to sites whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years – like the traditional burial place in Hebron of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

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