US to lose vote at UNESCO over three-year Palestine boycott

Move has prompted new criticism of laws that force funding cutoff for any UN agency with Palestine as a member

The main hall during the opening of the UNESCO Leaders' Forum on Nov. 6, 2013, in Paris.
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

American influence in culture, science and education around the world is facing a high-profile blow Friday, with the United States to be stripped of its voting rights at the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO. It would cost the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars to win its vote back.

The United States hasn't paid its dues to the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in three years in protest over the decision by world governments to make Palestine a UNESCO member in 2011. The Palestinian territories, which are not yet a sovereign state, were granted full membership in UNESCO two years ago.

Under UNESCO rules, the U.S. has until Friday morning to resume funding or it will automatically lose its vote.

The suspension of U.S. contributions, which account for $80 million a year — 22 percent of UNESCO's budget — brought the agency to the brink of a financial crisis and forced it to cut U.S.-led initiatives such as Holocaust education and tsunami research over the past two years.

It has worried many in Washington that the U.S. is on track to become a toothless UNESCO member with a weakened voice in international programs fighting extremism through education and promoting gender equality and press freedoms.

"We won't be able to have the same clout," said Phyllis Magrab, the Washington-based U.S. national commissioner for UNESCO. "In effect, we (won't) have a full toolbox. We're missing our hammer."

The UNESCO tension has prompted new criticism of U.S. laws that force an automatic funding cutoff for any U.N. agency with Palestine as a member.

The agency may be best known for its program to protect the cultures of the world via its heritage sites, including the Statue of Liberty and Mali's Timbuktu.

But its core mission, as conceived by the U.S., a co-founder of the agency in 1946, was to be an anti-extremist organization. In today's world, it tackles foreign-policy issues such as access to clean water, teaching girls to read, eradicating poverty, promoting freedom of expression and giving people creative-thinking skills to resist violent extremism.

Among UNESCO programs already slashed because of funding shortages is one in Iraq that was intended to help restore proper water facilities. Another was a Holocaust- and genocide-awareness program in Africa to teach about nonviolence, nondiscrimination and ethnic tolerance.

That loss is a particular blow to the U.S., since Holocaust awareness was one of the areas in the organization's agenda that the country aggressively promoted when it rejoined in 2002 after withdrawing for 18 months over differences in vision.

The concern over UNESCO is resonating in the U.S. Congress.

"The United States must not voluntarily forfeit its leadership in the world community," Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., told The Associated Press in an email.

With President Barack Obama's efforts to restore funding having failed or stalled, Ellison plans to introduce legislation in Congress to overturn what he calls the "antiquated" laws that automatically have halted funds to the agency since November 2011.

The Obama administration has proposed language to amend the legislation, but it remains on the table amid recent U.S. budget setbacks.

For some, it is a question of sooner rather than later, with the United States racking up arrears to UNESCO of some $220,000 a day, which it will have to pay back if it ever wants to fill its chair and restore its vote.

"Paying off three years is manageable, but it indeed becomes much more difficult if you allow many years to pass and the bill gets larger and larger and larger," said Esther Brimmer, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

The Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, said other countries are beginning to make up for the U.S. shortfall.

"Is this in the interest of the U.S., to be replaced?" he asked.             

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova lamented the changes that are not only seeing the U.S. silenced within her organization but also damaging UNESCO financially.

"I regret to say that I'm seeing, in these last two years … a declining American influence and American involvement," she told the AP.

"I can't imagine how we could disengage with the United States at UNESCO. We are so intertwined with our message ... What I regret is that this decision became so divisive and triggered this suspension of the funding," she said.

Bokova said she accepts political reality and would find ways for UNESCO to continue its work despite a 2014 budget that is down by an estimated $150 million.

Some fear this debacle is just the tip of the iceberg and worry about more serious consequences if Palestine joins other agencies like the World Health Organization.

The Associated Press

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