Kerry: 'I Am Determined to Restore U.S. Funding to (Pro-Palestinian) UNESCO'

Patrick Goodenough | November 12, 2015 | 4:18am EST
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Secretary of State John Kerry and UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova during a visit by Kerry to the U.N. agency's headquarters in Paris, France on Sunday, October 18, 2015. (Photo: UNESCO)

( – The United States was re-elected to the executive board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization on Wednesday, despite having withheld funds from the organization for four years. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his determination to get Congress to relent and restore funding.

“I am determined to restore U.S. funding to UNESCO, and hopeful that Congress will act to provide the administration the authority needed to waive the current legislative restrictions that prohibit U.S. contributions to the organization,” Kerry said after the vote in Paris.

Wednesday’s election also saw Iran get a seat on the board of UNESCO, whose mission is “building peace in the minds of men and women” through culture, education and science. Two other controversial candidates, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, tied for a seat in their regional group, and will hold a runoff on Friday.

UNESCO’s decision in 2011 to admit “Palestine” as a member – the first U.N. agency to do so – triggered a U.S. funding cutoff in line with a 1990 law barring financial support for “the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

The administration has been trying since then to obtain congressional waiver authority to enable it to restore funding, but to no avail.

Israel supporters in Congress view the funding cut as an effective deterrent to other U.N. agencies that may consider granting membership to the Palestinians.

The cutoff had a serious impact on UNESCO, as U.S. taxpayers had accounted for 22 percent of the operating budget. It says the U.S. now “owes” more than $300 million in unpaid dues.

In fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014 the administration requested, and was denied, $79 million, $79 million and $77.7 million respectively for contributions to UNESCO.

The FY 2015 State Department budget request did not include a funding request for UNESCO, but included “conditional transfer authority should the waiver be enacted.”

Again in FY 2016 no money was requested, but the administration did ask for authority to transfer up to $160 million from other accounts to the “contributions to international organizations” account, to be used in the event that “authority to waive the statutory restrictions on paying contributions to UNESCO is enacted.”

Adding to the administration’s frustration about the legally-mandated cutoff, the U.S. in 2013 lost its voting rights in UNESCO’s 195-member general conference as a result of being two years in arrears.

Kerry visited UNESCO headquarters in the French capital last month to lobby for re-election to the 58-member executive board. Confronting concerns about the arrears situation, he declared that “our commitment to this organization has never been stronger.”

Shortly after his visit Switzerland, one of seven countries then competing for six available executive board seats for the Western regional group, said it was withdrawing, citing other priorities.

Switzerland’s withdrawal created a “clean slate” – the same number of candidates are there are vacancies – thus assuring the U.S. of success.

In his response to the election, Kerry highlighted some of the work UNESCO does which the U.S. views as particularly important – “countering violent extremism, expanding educational opportunities for women and girls, stimulating groundbreaking scientific research, protecting and preserving the world’s cultural heritage, conserving ocean health, and promoting freedom of the press and protection of journalists.”

UNESCO has also waded into more controversial waters, however, with the U.S. often alone, or one of a small minority, in opposing some of its decisions. Apart from the 2011 vote to grant membership to “Palestine” despite the fact it is not a sovereign state, UNESCO has drawn criticism in recent years for:

 --A decision to include the writings of Marxist revolutionary “Che” Guevara in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register,” which honors some of the human race’s most significant heritage. The then-U.S. ambassador, David Killion, deplored the decision to honor someone who “tortured and killed countless innocent people.”

--A decision reappointing Syria to a committee dealing with human rights.

--annual resolutions critical of Israel and supporting Palestinian claims to heritage sites in disputed territory that have historical and religious significance for Jews.

--A decision to establish a UNESCO chair at the Islamic University of Gaza, an institution closely associated with the terrorist group Hamas.

--Granting a UNESCO life-sciences award sponsored by Africa’s longest-ruling dictator.

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