Obama 'Remains Deeply Committed to UNESCO' Despite Vote to Admit Palestine

By Patrick Goodenough | November 3, 2011 | 4:27am EDT

Delegates cheer after they approved Palestine's membership in a vote of 107-14 with 52 abstentions, during the session of UNESCO's 36th General Conference, in Paris, Monday Oct. 31, 2011. Palestine became a full member of the U.N. cultural and educational agency Monday, in a highly divisive move that the United States and other opponents say could harm renewed Mideast peace efforts. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

(CNSNews.com) – The United States was re-elected to the Executive Board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on Wednesday, two days after the agency’s admission of “Palestine” forced the Obama administration reluctantly to cut off funding in compliance with U.S. laws.

The U.S. obtained 146 votes out of a possible 186 from UNESCO’s General Conference for a seat on the board for the 2011-2015 period.

It was the lowest score of the six countries elected to the board from the Western group (the others were Austria, Britain, France, Italy and Spain) and was also lower than the votes obtained by Cuba (159) and Russia (162).

Although the administration announced Monday that it was halting funding for UNESCO, beginning with $60 million it had been intending to pay this month, the U.S. envoy to the agency, David Killion, stressed that continuing U.S. participation was not in doubt.

“President Obama has made strong multilateral engagement across the UN system – including at UNESCO – a top priority and a core aspect of U.S. foreign policy,” he told the General Conference shortly after it had voted by a large margin to admit “Palestine” as a full member.

“The United States remains deeply committed to UNESCO and its noble mission to build peace in the minds of men and women,” Killion added. “Despite the challenges ahead, we pledge to continue our efforts to find ways to support and strengthen the important work of this vital organization.”

The U.S. accounts for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget and also makes voluntary contributions; A funding cut will save U.S. taxpayers a little more than $80 million a year.

The funding cutoff was mandated by U.S. law passed in the early 1990s that prohibit U.S. funding to the U.N. or any of U.N. agency that “accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

Palestinian Authority (P.A.) representatives have announced that it will now seek membership of a range of other U.N. agencies, and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has confirmed that each time it succeeds the U.S. will be compelled to end funding to the organization concerned.

As CNSNews.com reported earlier, the legislation does not affect participation in the defunded U.N. agency, despite claims by pro-U.N. engagement advocates that the U.S. will be “forced to withdraw” unless the laws are amended.

Some critics of the U.N. contend that the U.S. should have announced it was leaving UNESCO immediately after the vote on the Palestinian application. (The U.S. only returned to UNESCO in 2003 after a 19-year absence. When it withdrew in 1984, the Reagan administration accused UNESCO of mismanagement and an anti-Western agenda. Citing reforms, the George W. Bush administration announced a return in late 2002.)

Instead, administration officials are “consulting with Congress” to find a way forward, Nuland said earlier this week.

“We have to work with Congress because these are legislative constraints, and so if we’re going to move forward in a legislative way, we have to gain their support,” she said.

Nuland declined to elaborate on possible options available, but the legislation as it stands does not contain waiver authority.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, quickly warned the administration not to look for ways around the law.

“Any effort to walk back U.S. law would send the damaging message that the U.S. will keep paying for U.N. bodies no matter what they do,” she said in a statement. “We do not strengthen our leadership and influence internationally by demonstrating that there are no consequences for U.N. actions that undermine peace and security.

“There must be consequences,” Ros-Lehtinen added. “Our strongest leverage at the UN is our funding, and now is the time to make it clear that we will not continue to foot the bill for biased organizations which harm our interests and our allies.”

Strong views on Capitol Hill about U.N. bodies admitting the Palestinians cross the aisle.

In September, Rep Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation blocking U.S. foreign military financing to countries that vote in favor of U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. The bill was co-sponsored by three Democrats.

A bipartisan resolution passed by the U.S. House over the summer – by a 407-6 vote – called on the administration “to oppose recognition of a Palestinian state by other nations, within the United Nations, and in other international forums prior to achievement of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”  The Senate passed a companion resolution by unanimous consent.

‘Find a way forward’

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova on Wednesday urged the U.S. to find a way to continue funding the agency, which she said carries out valuable work including promoting free media in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt and teaching literacy to Afghan police.

“UNESCO is encouraged that the United States will maintain its membership in the organization and hopes that a resolution to the funding issue will ultimately be identified. Until that happens, it will be impossible for us to maintain our current level of activity,” she said in a statement.

“The announced withholding of U.S. dues owed for 2011 will immediately affect our ability to deliver programs in critical areas: achieving universal education, supporting new democracies and fighting extremism.  So I call on the U.S. administration, Congress and the American people to find a way forward and continue support for UNESCO in these turbulent times.”

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon also expressed the hope that the U.S. government can find a way around the funding ban requirement, saying he had discussed the issue with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials.

“As I understand it, even President Obama, he doesn’t have any room, because Congress has adopted this law, a long time ago – 1990 and 1994 – so we have to realize all this situation,” he told reporters in New York.

“I don’t think it is a policy of the U.S. government. The U.S. government supports the Middle East peace process, the U.S. government supports Palestine, and I understand they support all this socio-economic and educational support for the Palestinian people,” Ban said. “It is not their policy, as I understand it.”

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