U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Defends Obama’s Decision to Restore UNESCO Funding

March 21, 2012 - 4:34 AM
Susan Rice

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, takes part in a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s envoy to the United Nations argued on Capitol Hill Tuesday that defunding the United Nation’s cultural agency because it admitted “Palestine” hurts America’s interests more than it does those of the Palestinians.

Appearing before the House Appropriations’ subcommittee responsible for foreign operations, Susan Rice was questioned about the administration’s fiscal year 2013 request for $79 million for the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

She described UNESCO as “essentially an anti-extremist organization,” saying that it does “essential work, from girls’ education to tsunami warning, that serve U.S. interests.”

“It’s not in our interests for these critical programs to go without 22 percent of U.S. funding.”

Just months after defunding UNESCO last fall -- in compliance with U.S. laws dating from 1990 and 1994 – the administration is now seeking a waiver to enable it to resume the funding in coming months.

Republican lawmakers view the funding cutoff as a success: Amid fretting by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the serious implications for an organization that depends on U.S. taxpayers for 22 percent of its funding, the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) last November suspended plans to seek membership in a range of other U.N. agencies.

“Many members of Congress believe that cutting off these funds is the reason the P.A. stopped further recognition efforts,” committee chairman Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) said in her opening statement at Tuesday’s hearing.

But Rice disputed the notion that the 1990 and 1994 laws serve as a successful deterrent today.

When the laws were created, she told the panel, “the world was a very different place – the process of pursuing a negotiated two-state solution was, you know, in a very different place.”

Back then, Rice said, the law did have the deterrent effect, as intended.

“It no longer does,” she said, noting that “the Palestinians and the rest of the world knew about the legislative restrictions before they took the vote in UNESCO” and went ahead anyway.

Should the P.A. decide to go ahead with applying to join other U.N. bodies, Rice continued, the law’s existence would likely not deter a majority of U.N. member states from voting to admit “Palestine.”

In the case of UNESCO, Rice suggested that the Palestinians achieved both membership and the additional benefit of seeing the decline of U.S. influence in the agency. (Once a UNESCO member is two years in arrears, it loses its voting rights.)

Rice said a distinction should be made between UNESCO as an agency and the member states that cast votes. (The vote to admit “Palestine” passed 107-14.)

It was difficult to punish member states that take stands opposed by the U.S., she said. Rice also noted that countries at times take voting positions on some issues that the U.S. would deplore but on others that the U.S. would welcome.

‘We discredit ourselves’

Republican members voiced strong feelings about the administration’s attempt to reverse the funding cutoff.

“This subcommittee was pretty clear that if the Palestinians went to the U.N., UNESCO, that there would be consequences,” said Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.). “We said it, we meant it.”

Dent asked Rice what the consequences would be for the U.S. if it went back on its word.

“The consequences shouldn’t be against us, the United States,” Rice replied. “That’s self-defeating. That wasn’t the intent of the legislation.”

“Do you not understand that we discredit ourselves when we don’t follow up on our commitments?” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) asked the ambassador.

“Do you not see it, how it hurts our national interests, when we back away from our pre-existing, stated positions, when they violate those positions and then we just walk away from them and look for other alternatives?”

Diaz-Balart went on to question the administration’s claims to be strongly supportive of Israel in the international arena, drawing a sharp retort from Rice: “I will not take a back seat to anybody on U.S. support for, in defense of Israel in the United Nations.”

While on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Rice also met with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a leading critic of the U.N.

“The administration needs to leave U.S. law alone – 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,” Ros-Lehtinen said afterwards.

“Instead of trying to weaken U.S. law, the administration should cut off funding to Ramallah and make clear that UNESCO will not get one red cent from the U.S. until it un-admits ‘Palestine.’”

The 1990 law behind the UNESCO cutoff 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.”