Scaremongering? Engagement Advocates Falsely Claim US Will be Forced to Withdraw from UN Agencies

By Patrick Goodenough | October 28, 2011 | 4:37 AM EDT

UNESCO's 36th General Conference opens in Paris on Tuesday Oct. 25, 2011. (Photo: UNESCO/Danica Bijeljac)

( – As the United Nations’ cultural agency prepares to vote on membership for “Palestine,” advocates of strong U.S. engagement with the U.N. are asserting – wrongly – that a successful vote will force the U.S. to withdraw from the agency.

Furthermore, they are warning of a looming run of forced U.S. departures from other U.N. bodies, including some whose functions are viewed as especially important for U.S. security interests, such as the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

If, as expected, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) votes on Monday in favor of the Palestinian application, two U.S. laws passed in the 1990s will mandate a cutoff of U.S. funding to the Paris-based agency, amounting to 22 percent of its total operating budget plus several million more in voluntary contributions.

But the two laws do not address the question of membership, and they do not compel the U.S. to leave. Neither do UNESCO regulations require a country that is not paying its assessed dues to withdraw.

UNESCO has two governing bodies:

-- The General Conference comprises all 193 U.N. member states. This is the assembly currently in session in Paris, which on Monday is scheduled to vote on the Palestinian application for full membership. The U.S. cannot lose its membership in the General Conference as a result of its contributions being in arrears.

-- The Executive Board comprises 58 members, elected by the General Conference for four-year terms. The board earlier this month voted to send the Palestine application to the full General Conference for a final decision. The U.S. is a member of the Executive Board and is standing for re-election this fall, for the 2011-2015 period. Assuming it is re-elected, the U.S. cannot lose its seat on the board as a result of being in arrears.

In the advocacy community, concerns about the implications of the Palestine vote and the applicable U.S. laws have been raised first and foremost by the United Nations Foundation, a group set up in 1998 with a $1 billion donation from CNN founder and philanthropist Ted Turner. Its priorities include building public support for the U.N. and advocating U.S. funding for the U.N.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed this week, U.N. Foundation president Timothy Wirth wrote that if the Palestinian membership vote passes, “the United States would have to resign from UNESCO because of a 20-year-old law forbidding the payment of dues by the U.S. to any U.N. body that accepts Palestine as a member.”

Wirth went on to say that the U.S. would also have to withdraw from any other U.N. agency that may admit the Palestinians in the months ahead, “thereby losing influence and input on international issues.”

The op-ed headline was, “For the U.S., a forced withdrawal from UNESCO,” with the sub-heading, “If the organization accepts Palestine as a member, the U.S. will have to resign.”

The forced withdrawal assertion has also appeared in recent postings on the U.N. Foundation’s blog, U.N. Dispatch.

“The World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Atomic Energy Association are just a few well-known U.N. agencies from which the United States would be forced to withdraw should they grant Palestine full membership,” U.N. Dispatch managing editor Mark Leon Goldberg wrote on Oct. 17.

In an Oct. 24 posting, Goldberg wrote that the applicable U.S. law from the 1990s “stipulates that the U.S.A. must withdraw from any U.N. agencies to which the Palestinians become members.  It would appear that UNESCO is poised to admit the Palestinians, ergo the U.S.A. must withdraw.”

Neither the U.N. Foundation nor Goldberg responded to invitations to comment.

Withholding dues

The head of UNESCO’s media office, Susan Williams, confirmed Thursday that members whose contributions are in arrears are not obliged to leave.

“There is no provision in the UNESCO constitution or other legal text that prevents member states who are in arrears and/or who have lost their vote in the General Conference from attending meetings of the General Conference or being a member of the Executive Board,” she explained.

“In other words, the U.S. can remain a member of UNESCO even if it no longer pays its dues,” Williams said. “It can also seek election on the various committees and bodies associated with UNESCO, including the Executive Board, and attend the General Conference.”

According to the UNESCO constitution, once a country is two years in arrears – 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” – it loses its voting rights. (At least eight other U.N. agencies apply similar provisions, including the IAEA, the World Health Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization).

Until such time as its voting rights may be revoked, U.S. participation at UNESCO would not be affected, in the view of Heritage Foundation scholar Brett Schaefer, who specializes in the U.N. and international regulatory affairs.

“Based on my reading of UNESCO’s constitution, withholding contributions would not prevent the U.S. from maintaining UNESCO membership, attending meetings or otherwise participating in discussions, making its opinions known to other UNESCO member states, casting a vote in the Executive Board as long as it is on that body, or casting a vote in the General Conference until its voting privileges are suspended,” he said Thursday.

Even the issue of losing voting rights is not clear cut.

UNESCO’s constitution allows a country that is in arrears to retain its right to vote if it can successfully argue “that failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the member state.” In such cases, the countries concerned usually negotiate payment plans to settle arrears in installments.

(As of June 30 this year, 26 UNESCO member states were in arrears to the extent that triggers the provision on losing voting rights. The owe relatively modest amounts, with Guinea-Bissau ($382,050), Somalia ($357,026) and Libya ($189,050) topping the list.)

Whether the U.S. could successfully argue that its inability to pay its dues is due to circumstances “beyond the control of the member state” is not clear.

“We prefer not to speculate on hypothetical questions such as this one,” a Western diplomat told on Thursday. “Our focus is on working towards a solution that avoids triggering the U.S. legislation.”


Asked during a briefing Wednesday if the applicable U.S. laws would force the U.S. to withdraw from U.N. agencies admitting Palestine, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland demurred.

“I don’t want to walk through all the what-ifs,” she said. “Our lawyers are going to have to look at this if we get to that stage. So why don’t we leave it that we hope this is a bridge that we’re not going to have to cross. And if we do have to cross it, we’ll be prepared to speak about what our legal conclusions are about what the U.S. is required to do.”

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the issue during an Oct. 11 interview with Reuters, she did not say directly that the U.S. would be compelled to withdraw from U.N. agencies. She did, however, warn that the U.S. could “lose our right to participate and influence their actions.”

“Now, there are those on the Hill and elsewhere who say, well, UNESCO deals with cultural stuff; what’s the difference?” Clinton said. “Well, I think there are some significant problems if this begins to cascade. What happens with the International Atomic Energy Agency? What happens with the World Health Organization? What happens with the Food and Agriculture Organization? Not only do we provide 20 to 25 percent of all the funding that these organizations get, but our membership in them is in our self-interest,” she said.

“So I am strongly making the case to Members of Congress that at some point we need some flexibility because pretty soon, if we don’t pay into these organizations, we lose our right to participate and influence their actions.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow