The situation is a direct result of UNESCO’s decision in 2011 to grant full membership to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), the first U.N. agency to do so.
Under laws passed in the 1990s, the U.S. as a result was obliged to cut its funding, which accounts for 22 percent of UNESCO’s regular budget. Although the administration sought a waiver to enable it to resume contributions, it has not been successful.
According to the UNESCO constitution a member state loses its vote at the organization’s General Conference “if the total amount of contributions due from it exceeds the total amount of contributions payable by it for the current year and the immediately preceding calendar year.”
With the U.S. now effectively two years in arrears, that point has been reached. The General Conference (GC) begins in Paris on Tuesday, and the only way the U.S. can retain its voting rights is if the GC “is satisfied that failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the member state.”
To be considered for that exception, the U.S. will have to make a submission to the meeting during the first three days of the session, which runs through November 20.
Usually such exceptions are requested in cases where countries cannot afford to pay, and the granting of an exception is linked to an agreed payment plan to settle the arrears. The U.S. case is different.
In its fiscal year 2014 budget request, the administration asked for $77.8 million for funding for UNESCO, and said that if Congress grants it waiver authority, it would also request a further $156 million to cover the FY 2012 and FY 2013 arrears.
Supporters of UNESCO argue that the failure to fund is detrimental to the U.S. and U.S. values. In her appeals for U.S. funding to be restored UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova frequently points to the agency’s work in promoting projects such as press freedom, tsunami research and Holocaust education.
But UNESCO has also long been a venue for politically-motivated actions, often measures spearheaded by Islamic states and their allies targeting Israel.
Concerns about mismanagement and an agenda viewed as anti-Western prompted the Reagan administration to withdraw in 1984. The U.S. only returned to UNESCO a decade ago, with President Bush citing significant reforms under a Japanese director-general who had taken over in 1999.
Over recent years fresh controversies have erupted, however. Apart from the 2011 vote to admit “Palestine” they include:
--A decision this year to include the writings of “Che” Guevara in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register,” which honors some of the human race’s most significant heritage.
--The granting of a UNESCO award sponsored by an African dictator. Only pressure led by the U.S. preventing the award from carrying the name of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, but he still funds and is closely associated with what is now called the “UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.”
--A 2012 decision to establish a UNESCO chair at the Islamic University of Gaza, an institution closely associated with the Hamas terrorist group.
--A 2011 decision reappointing Syria to a committee dealing with human rights. A U.S.-led effort to expel Syria from the committee failed, in favor of a watered-down resolution that criticized the Assad regime for abuses but did not call for its removal.
--A plan to allow Iran to host UNESCO’s annual World Philosophy Day event in 2010. Under pressure from the U.S. and others, Bokova disassociated the agency from the Tehran event.
The most obviously politicized focus area has been in the Middle East, where UNESCO has repeatedly supported Palestinian claims to heritage sites in disputed territory that have deep historical and religious significance for Jews.
At a meeting last month, UNESCO’s executive board passed six resolutions condemning Israel. One criticized Israel for including on its national heritage list two sites that are located in territory claimed by the Palestinians – the traditional burial place of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Hebron, and the traditional burial site in Bethlehem of Rachel, Jacob’s wife.
The UNESCO resolution reaffirmed that the two sites “are an integral part of Palestine.”
Of the 58-member executive board the U.S. alone voted against the six Israel-related resolutions.
In a statement to the board on October 4 U.S. ambassador to UNESCO David Killion, who has served since 2009 and is due to leave shortly, expressed his dismay.
“This is supposed to be a place for peace-building,” he said. “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.”
Bokova, a former Bulgarian foreign minister, came under criticism earlier this year after an external audit by a French government body found fault with UNESCO’s management and decision-making.
However, last month’s executive board meeting endorsed her for a second term – after she defeated challengers from Djibouti and Lebanon in a vote – and the GC is expected to confirm that decision on November 12.