The UNESCO Lesson
2:05 PM, Nov 3, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
Earlier this week, the majority of member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—whose self-stated mission is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information”—voted to accept the Palestinians’ application to become the newest member of the organization. The vote was not even close—107 voted in favor of the Palestinians, while 14 states voted against (52 abstained)—for “Palestine [to become] the 195th full member of UNESCO,” as the New York Times reported.
The latest Palestinian move was meant as another step toward its primary goal—its ongoing bid for recognition as a member state of the United Nations. In September, Palestinian chief Mahmoud Abbas spoke at the United Nations in New York City to ask for support for statehood for his people. The peace process, Abbas suggested, has not achieved its stated goals (after all, there still is not peace), and therefore the Palestinians should be able to circumvent that process and be recognized by the international body.
Gaining acceptance at UNESCO was meant to move the main body toward supporting the Palestinian statehood bid. After all, if one U.N. arm supports and recognizes, why should the rest of the international body hold out?
But instead it seems to have accomplished something else: It is becoming clear what would happen to the entire United Nations if it were now to accept a Palestinians state.
Consider the State Department’s official response. “[The] vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member is regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East,” spokesman Victoria Nuland said, reiterating the American position, in a written statement. And, Nuland said, America’s funding of UNESCO would now have to stop. “Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO.”
What that means, practically, is that UNESCO will not be receiving the $60 million disbursement from the U.S. government it was scheduled to receive this month. And, as the New York Times reported, “The step will cost [UNESCO] one-quarter of its yearly budget—the 22 percent contributed by the United States (about $70 million) plus another percent contributed by Israel.”
That's not all the bad news for UNESCO. Canada has also frozen its contribution of funds to UNESCO in response to this latest move, slashing another $10 million a year the organization would otherwise have received.
It is not that the Obama administration does not like UNESCO. On the contrary, the Americans tried hard to dissuade UNESCO from taking the vote.
Rather, the State Department is simply abiding by a law passed by Congress in the 1990s. “No 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,” the 1994 law states. The New York Times reports that, though the State Department looked into it, there was no way to circumvent the law: “State Department lawyers see no leeway in the legislation, and no possibility of waiver.”
UNESCO at first celebrated the vote, but now seems to be having second thoughts after realizing the cost of their actions.
“UNESCO is encouraged that the United States will maintain its membership in the Organization and hopes that a resolution to the funding issue will ultimately be identified,” Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, said in a statement released yesterday. “Until that happens, it will be impossible for us to maintain our current level of activity.”
The lesson is clear. The U.S. provides roughly 22 percent of the United Nations’ operating budget, amounting to close to $1.2 billion per year. (More than that, Fox News reports: “Overall, the U.S. spent at least $7.7 billion on the sprawling global U.N. array of organizations last year, up from $6.35 billion the previous year—an increase of more than 21 percent.”) The United Nations will likely lose American funding if they accept a Palestinian state. That is the choice.