UNESCO and 'Palestine': US Loses Voting Rights Over Funding Arrears

By Patrick Goodenough | November 8, 2013 | 4:36 AM EST

U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General Irina Bokova addresses the agency’s General Conference in Paris, France this week. (Photo: UNESCO)


(Update: The U.S. lost its voting rights at UNESCO on Friday. U.S. ambassador David Killion and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki both reiterated that the administration remains committed to getting U.S. funding restored in order to regain its position as a voting member.)

(CNSNews.com) – The United States has decided not to request a special exemption that would allow it to retain its voting rights at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the move is expected to take effect at the agency’s General Conference on Friday.

U.S. contributions to the Paris-based organization are two years in arrears because the Obama administration was obliged by law to cut funding after UNESCO admitted “Palestine” as a full member in 2011.

The administration reluctantly cut the funding, urging Congress to provide waiver authority to enable it to resume. That has not happened and the arrears have now accumulated to a point where voting rights are forfeit.

Since the situation is not of the government’s choosing, however, it could formally request an exemption if it can satisfy the 195-member General Conference that “failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the member state.”

But the U.S. delegation does not plan to submit such a request, an official speaking on background confirmed from Paris late Thursday.

“The United States considers that all U.N. members have a responsibility to be good stewards of the system and pay their assessed contributions under their treaty obligations.”

Washington’s outgoing ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, is due to address the General Conference on Friday, when the loss of the U.S. vote will likely be confirmed.

Losing its vote will have an obvious impact: The U.S. has frequently stood alone in opposing UNESCO resolutions – usually those critical of Israel, which come in a steady stream.

For example, at the most recent session of UNESCO’s 58-member executive board, early last month, six resolutions condemning Israel were passed. The voting records – 37-1, 38-1, 43-1, 43-1, 42-1 and 36-1 – reflect the lopsided outcomes, with the U.S. alone voting “no” each time.

“This is supposed to be a place for peacebuilding,” Killion chided the board at the time. “Now we have this board faced with six – I repeat six – decisions directed at a single member-state. This is truly ridiculous, and obviously counterproductive.”

The U.S. has also led opposition to other UNESCO decisions it finds objectionable, such as a decision this year to include “Che” Guevara’s writings in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register,” which honors highly significant heritage.

The U.S. requested a review of the decision, but without success.

“Che Guevara tortured and killed countless innocent people,” Killion said last month. “His writings are antithetical to UNESCO’s values and mission to promote peace in the minds of men.”

Before the funding cut, American “assessed” contributions accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget. It also made additional “voluntary” contributions. The step sparked what director-general Irina Bokova called the organization’s “worst ever” crisis, and she urged the U.S. to find a way to reverse the move.

She did not – in public at least – urge member states to reconsider their decision to grant membership to a non-sovereignty entity. Although the chances of it happening were virtually nil, a vote to reverse the “Palestine” decision would have brought back the U.S. funding.

Faced with a budget shortfall of $220 million at the beginning of last year, Bokova launched emergency fundraising and reform efforts.

Addressing the General Conference this week, she reported on how “the suspension of major contributions” had led to belt-tightening, including reductions of 73 percent in travel costs and 83 percent in consultancy fees, and the freezing of 228 vacant posts, mostly at UNESCO headquarters.

She said the emergency fund had received $75 million, and that for the first time in many years more money had come in from voluntary than from assessed contributions.

Bokova made a fresh appeal for U.S. support.

“At this time when our message has never been so relevant, UNESCO deserves full support and engagement of all its members,” she said. “I appeal to the universality of this organization, which is our greatest strength, and I appeal for the full contribution of all states.

“This includes the United States, with which UNESCO’s partnership has never been so important. I believe UNESCO has perhaps never mattered so much for the American people, nor the American people for UNESCO.”


The vote to admit “Palestine” two years ago passed by a large margin – 107-14, with 52 abstentions. It took place at a time when the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was pursuing a campaign to win recognition across the U.N. system, and UNESCO was its first key victory.

Israel and the U.S. opposed what they saw as an attempt to bypass the process of seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict, to which Palestinian leaders had committed themselves in numerous signed agreements since 1994.

After the vote the administration was legally bound to end contributions to UNESCO. A 1990 law bars funding to “the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

A second law, passed in 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.”

Not long after the defunding announcement, the administration began seeking waiver authority to enable it to resume funding.

That brought criticism from Republican members of Congress, who viewed the UNESCO cutoff as having proven an effective deterrent to the P.A.’s U.N. membership drive. After U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon raised grave concerns about the financial implications for the world body the P.A. put its plans on hold.

For its part, the administration argued that the defunding had hurt America’s interests more than those of the Palestinians.

Then-ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice told lawmakers that not only had the P.A. won a seat, but it would also benefit from a decline of U.S. influence at UNESCO – a reference to the eventual loss of voting rights.

UNESCO critics on the Hill were adamant, however.

“The administration needs to leave U.S. law alone,” then-House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said after discussing the matter with Rice.

“It’s working by deterring other U.N. bodies from following in UNESCO’s footsteps and admitting ‘Palestine,’ and by ensuring that U.S. taxpayers don’t foot the bill for UNESCO’s bad behavior,” she said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow