Republicans Want U.N. Agency to Lose U.S. Funding If ‘Palestine’ Is Admitted

By Patrick Goodenough | October 5, 2011 | 4:30 AM EDT

The headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. (Photo: UNESCO)

(Update: UNESCO’s executive board on Wednesday voted to send the Palestinian membership request to the agency’s 193-member General Conference, which will meet from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10.  Sources told news agencies the 58-member board passed the decision by 40-4 -- the no votes coming from the U.S., Germany, Romania and Latvia -- with 14 abstentions.)

( – Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to have the United Nations enhance the status of “Palestine” could move forward as early as Wednesday, when one of the U.N.’s 15 specialized agencies considers an application for full membership.

On the penultimate day of its twice-yearly session in Paris, the executive board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will consider item 40 on its agenda: “Request for the admission of Palestine to UNESCO.”

Legislation currently before the U.S. House of Representatives would prohibit U.S. funding for any U.N. entity that upgrades the status of the Palestinian observer mission to the U.N.

Authored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act continues to draw support, with the list of co-sponsors now standing at 100, all Republicans.

UNESCO, whose stated aim is to promote global understanding and peace “through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information,” receives 22 percent of its regular budget from the U.S., as well as an additional $3.7 million each year in extra-budgetary funds, according to the U.S. Mission to the UNESCO.

UNESCO’s approved regular budget for the two-year period 2010-2011 is $653 million, and the Obama administration requested $84.8 million for contributions to the agency in fiscal year 2011, up from $80.9 million in 2010 and $75.9 million in 2009.

A Saudi representative at the UNESCO meeting, Abdulaziz al-Subayyil, told the board this week the state of Palestine based on “1967 borders” and with Jerusalem as its capital should be recognized and granted full membership.

The official Saudi Press Agency said al-Subayyil pointed to five decisions taken by a previous session of the board, last October, regarding the Palestinian issue, describing them as “important and essential steps in the context of full international recognition of the state of Palestine.”

Those five decisions included one deploring the security blockade of Gaza and others challenging Israel’s claims to some of Judaism’s most revered sites, including the burial places of the biblical patriarchs Abraham Isaac, and Jacob. All five passed by large majorities, with the U.S. alone voting “no” in each case.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a letter requesting recognition of Palestine as a state as he addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. (AP/Richard Drew)

On Sept. 23 Abbas formally applied for U.N. membership for Palestine.  The matter is before the Security Council, and a committee reviewing the application is due to meet for the first time on Friday.  If put to a vote, the bid will need to secure the support of at least nine of the council’s 15 members, and no veto from a permanent one. The U.S. has pledged to veto any application.

Ros-Lehtinen Tuesday called the bid to obtain UNESCO membership an attempt by Abbas to “rig the process.”

“Feeling that their efforts at the U.N. Security Council will fail, the Palestinian leadership is shopping around the U.N. system for recognition,” she said.. “This attempt to rig the process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.”

“It is deeply disappointing to see UNESCO, which has reformed itself in recent years, poised to support this dangerous Palestinian scheme,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen said the administration must make it clear that any decision to upgrade the Palestinian mission’s status at any U.N. body will result in an end to U.S. funding for that body.

“Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the U.N., and should be used to stand up for our interests and allies and stop this dangerous Palestinian scheme,” she said.

Current members of UNESCO’s 58-strong board include Belarus, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members account for 30 percent of the board makeup.

Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer pointed out Tuesday that unlike the Security Council, the U.S. does not have a veto at UNESCO. An executive board recommendation for membership would go to the General Conference – all 193 member states – and would require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

“It would be virtually impossible for the U.S. to prevent a majority of UNESCO’s executive board from recommending membership for the Palestine delegation,” he wrote at National Review Online. “It would be almost as hard for the U.S. to get 65 countries to oppose the Palestinian bid in UNESCO’s General Conference.”

Schaefer noted that Public Law 101-246 – passed in 1989 by a Democratic-controlled Congress – states that “[n]o 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.”

“If the Palestinian delegation is successful in joining UNESCO as a full member, U.S. law should lead the administration to immediately and indefinitely freeze all U.S. funds going to UNESCO,” he wrote.

Controversies, reforms

Ros-Lehtinen’s reference to UNESCO having “reformed itself in recent years” is a reminder of the difficult relationship the agency has had with Western democracies over the decades.

Viewed by critics as a mouthpiece for pro-Soviet and anti-Western sentiment, UNESCO promoted such schemes as the setting up of a “new world information order” – with licenses for journalists and an international code of press ethics – to counteract what it said was an unbalanced, Western-dominated flow of information.

Accusing the agency of financial mismanagement, corruption and a problematic political agenda, the Reagan administration withdrew in the 1980s, as did Singapore and Britain’s Conservative government. (Under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain returned to UNESCO in 1997.)

In 1999 Japanese diplomat Koichiro Matsuura became UNESCO director-general and introduced wide-ranging reforms.

Citing those reforms, President Bush told the U.N. in a September 2002 speech that the U.S. would return to UNESCO and “participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”

Matsuura’s 10-year term at the helm was not all plain sailing, however, as some member states continued to promote an agenda contrary to UNESCO’s mandate to promote freedom of expression.

In 2006, the board approved an OIC resolution relating to the Mohammed cartoon controversy; and in 2008 it withdrew its support for an “Online Free Expression Day” after countries like China and Iran were accused by the event organizers of violating online freedom.

When Matsuura’s term neared its end, Islamic, Arab and African states put forward a candidate who as Egypt’s culture minister had threatened to burn any Israeli books found in an Egyptian library. The U.S. and other Western democracies succeeded in blocking Farouk Hosni’s candidacy, and Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova got the post.

The U.S. also helped to block two other contentious decisions in 2010 – one allowing Iran to host UNESCO’s annual World Philosophy Day event and the other establishing a life sciences prize in honor of Teodoro Obiang, the autocratic president of Equatorial Guinea.

This year, Obiang holds the rotating presidency of the African Union, and the A.U. put the Obiang award issue back on the UNESCO agenda. Bokova last week urged the African states to withdraw the request and on Tuesday the board voted to postpone a final decision until next April.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow