Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was recently reappointed to the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, a subsidiary body of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s executive board.
The 29-member committee, which meets twice a year, is tasked to examine often sensitive communications received from individuals or organizations relating to human rights violations within UNESCO’s field of competence – that is, in education, science, culture and communication (including freedom of opinion and expression.)
Other members of the committee in 2010-2011 include countries frequently criticized for their human rights records, including Algeria, Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Venezuela.
But Syria’s return to the committee is particularly controversial at a time when Damascus is under fire for a violent response to anti-government protests that has killed more than 3,500 people. (A U.N. General Assembly committee on Tuesday passed a draft resolution by a 122-13 vote condemning Assad for the crackdown.)
The little-noticed move last week was first reported in the Israeli media. An Israeli government official called the decision “an outrageous absurdity,” telling Israel Radio that “UNESCO is legitimizing Syria even as it is slaughtering its own people.”
Queries sent to UNESCO brought no response by press time.
A leading critic of the U.N. in the U.S. Congress, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), slammed the decision.
“UNESCO continues to outdo itself with stunning displays of irresponsible and dangerous behavior,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Earlier this month, UNESCO admitted ‘Palestine’ as a member, supporting the Palestinian leadership’s anti-Israel, anti-peace statehood scheme,” she said. “The selection of Syria to serve on a UNESCO committee responsible for human rights is an affront to those suffering at the hand of tyrants all around the world.”
“The administration must continue to follow U.S. law and withhold funds to UNESCO so our tax dollars are not used to support this increasingly irresponsible agency,” Ros-Lehtinen added.
After UNESCO became the first U.N. agency to grant “Palestine” full membership, the U.S. government announced that it was halting funding, beginning with $60 million it had been intending to pay during November.
The decision was mandated by U.S. law enacted in the 1990s denying funding to any U.N. agency “which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”
The U.S. accounts for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget and also makes voluntary contributions. The enforced funding cut saves U.S. taxpayers more than $80 million a year.
Israel also announced it was ending a $2 million annual contribution to UNESCO, and Canada said it would stop voluntary contributions to the agency, worth an estimated $1.3 million a year.
Earlier this month UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova launched an emergency appeal in a bid to meet an immediate shortfall of $65 million as well as projected gaps next year.
She urged member states to “help UNESCO move through this time of serious difficulty,” proposing that they make voluntary contributions to a working capital fund – not as a long-term solution but to “provide the organization with some breathing space to plan rationally in new circumstances.”
More bad news for the agency has now come from the British government.
Last March, the government’s Department for International Development (DfID) released the results of a comprehensive review of Britain’s bilateral and multilateral foreign aid policies, and announced it was stopping all funding to four U.N. agencies which it had determined were not performing well.
At the same time, DfID also put another four international organizations on notice to reform urgently, or risk losing funding. One of them was UNESCO (the others were the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Organization for Migration, and the development programs of the Commonwealth.)
On Monday, the BBC reported that the minister in charge of DfID, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, has now sent a “final warning” to UNESCO and the other organizations, calling their progress to date in improving their performance unsatisfactory.
“We only want to work with agencies that are effective and make the most of the support Britain supplies,” Mitchell said. “While we’ve seen some organizations introducing important reforms, the response from others has been disappointingly sluggish. That’s not good enough and so it is time for organizations to improve or risk losing our support.”