U.S. and Israel Lose UNESCO Voting Rights

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The folly of laws that force action upon the occurrence of some triggering event was on full display last week as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had to strip the United States of its voting rights because of nonpayment of dues that the government actually wanted to pay for the last two years but could not. The move is expected to cost at least 1,000 American jobs and undermine American influence around the world.


The U.S.-UNESCO conflict goes back to two laws passed by Congress in 1990 and 1994 that require the government to cease funding any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a full member. Nearly 20 years later, in 2011, the government was forced to stop all support for UNESCO after the organization voted to grant Palestine full membership. Despite reform efforts led by the Obama administration in 2011 and 2012, Congress refused to alter or amend the law.


Under UNESCO’s constitution, however, any nation that fails to pay dues for two years loses its vote in the UNESCO general assembly. That made UNESCO’s vote-stripping automatic, just as the U.S. “decision” to withhold dues was unavoidable under federal law. The U.S. had never before voluntarily given up its vote in a UN organization, according to diplomats.  


“I deeply regret this,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova in an interview Friday at agency headquarters. “This is not some kind of punishment on behalf of Unesco for nonpayment. It’s just our rules.”  


The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, said at the ongoing UNESCO general conference in Paris that “UNESCO is a critical partner in creating a better future,” that the Obama administration was committed to restoring funding and that the U.S. would continue to participate as a nonvoting member in the meantime. Before 2011, U.S. funding came to about $70 million, or 22% of the agency’s annual budget.


In addition to the expected loss in international prestige and influence, American jobs are actually at stake. With the U.S. no longer voting, it is much less likely that two U.S. sites slated to become UNESCO certified World Heritage sites will receive final approval. One is an ancient mound-builder site known as Poverty Point, Louisiana, while the other is a group of 18th century Spanish missions in San Antonio. The Texas site was projected to create at least 1,000 jobs, and both would have benefited their locales with increased tourism.


But it is the future implications of the situation that most concern foreign policy commentators. If talks between Israel and Palestine fail to achieve a breakthrough before wrapping up in April, Palestine is likely to apply for membership to additional UN organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), according to Mark Goldberg, editor of the news site U.N. Dispatch. If Palestine is approved, the U.S. would automatically stop funding those groups, as well.


Given the leading role that IAEA plays in the multi-party talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the importance of WHO to preventing global epidemics, losing voting rights in those organizations would be far more harmful to the U.S. 


“This is the first time this has happened. It’s basically the canary in the coal mine,” Goldberg told The Washington Post. “It could get much worse if the law isn’t changed. I mean—it’s a ridiculous law.”


Israel, which also stopped funding UNESCO in 2011, likewise lost its vote.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

U.S. Loses Voting Rights at Unesco (by Alissa J. Rubin, New York Times)

Does it Matter that the U.S. Just Lost its Vote in UNESCO? (by Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post)

U.S Law Halts Aid to UNESCO if it Recognizes Palestine (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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