State Dept.--Ignoring Law--Won't Defund U.N. Climate Agency for Admitting 'State of Palestine'

Patrick Goodenough | April 28, 2016 | 4:26am EDT
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The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat is based at the 'U.N. Campus' in Bonn, Germany (Photo: UNFCCC)

( – The State Department says it’s not obliged to cut off funding for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in response to its admission of the “State of Palestine,” since the UNFCCC is “a treaty,” not an international organization.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the senator leading calls for a halt to the funding in line with U.S. law, called the argument “intentionally misleading,” and an exercise in “verbal gymnastics.”

Two Heritage Foundation scholars contended that if the UNFCCC is not an international organization, “then the term has no meaning.”

A 1990 law 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 funding for “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.”

On March 17 the UNFCCC formally admitted the “State of Palestine” – as the U.N. calls the non-sovereign administration headed by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

U.S. policy opposes the P.A.’s unilateral push for recognition at U.N. bodies, on the grounds Palestinian and Israeli leaders have committed in signed agreements to pursue a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, 28 Republican senators led by Barrasso said that no U.S. funds could go to the UNFCCC or related bodies, including the Green Climate Fund (GCF), with effect from March 17.

Climate change initiatives are a top priority for the administration, which has requested $13 million for the UNFCCC in fiscal year 2017 and recently sent $500 million to the GCF – the first instalment of a $3 billion pledge over four years.

Those same climate initiatives are anathema to many congressional Republicans – who also contest the legality of the administration’s decision to send funds to the GCF without congressional authorization or appropriation.

The State Department’s response to the senators came in the form of a letter from assistant secretary for legislative affairs Julia Frifield, who said that in the department’s view the funding prohibitions in the 1990 and 1994 law have not been triggered by the Palestinians’ admission to the UNFCCC.

“The UNFCCC is a treaty, and the Palestinians’ purported accession to it does not involve their becoming members of any U.N. specialized agency or, indeed any international organization,” she wrote in the letter, a copy of which was made available by Barrasso's office.

A State Department official wrote to GOP senators that the adminstration is not obliged to cut off U.S. funding for the UNFCCC for admitting the Palestinians because the U.N. climate body 'is a treaty.' (Image: State Dep't letter to Sen. Barrasso)

“More generally, as a matter of policy, we do not believe that it advances U.S. interests to respond to Palestinian efforts by withholding critical funds that support the implementation of key international agreements,” Frifield added. “We continue to believe that the most effective way to promote U.S. interests and influence debate on key issues is by working constructively within international agreements.”

Barrasso called the response “intentionally misleading.”

“The UNFCCC is clearly an international organization. It is even listed as such on the U.N. website where it is housed,” he said, in reference to the website of the “U.N. Campus” in Bonn, Germany, where the UNFCCC is listed as one of 18 U.N. entities located there.

“This administration is unwilling to follow the law,” Barrasso said. “The verbal gymnastics they’re using to try and justify their unlawful actions should surprise no one.”

“The law is clear,” he said, echoing words he said on the Senate floor last week. “Funding for this U.N. organization must stop now.”

‘Inconsistent with reality’

For Heritage Foundation fellows Brett Schaefer and Steven Groves the administration’s motivation in trying to evade the law is evident – it accords its climate change agenda higher priority than U.S. relations with Israel.

But its legal argument, they wrote in a commentary, is “inconsistent with reality.”

UNFCCC is in fact a “treaty-based international organization” – like the United Nations itself, and like other U.S. agencies and other international bodies like Organization of American States and INTERPOL, they argued.

Schaefer and Groves noted that the UNFCCC has an executive secretary, employs about 500 staff, has permanent subsidiary bodies, and had a budget for the 2014-2015 biennium of 54.6 million euros ($61.8 million) – 21.45 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

As such it could not be compared to treaties that do not have governance or bureaucratic structures, such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations or the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Eugene Kontorovich, professor of international law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, said early Thursday that the UNFCCC was “both a treaty and a U.N. organization.”

“Thus if the administration allows taxpayer money to go to the organization in the face of an explicit congressional policy to deny such funding, undermines Congress’s most basic constitutional power, the power of the purse,” he said in an email.

In their earlier letter to Kerry, the GOP senators argued that the UNFCCC is clearly an “affiliated organization of the United Nations.”

They pointed out, among other things, that the head of the UNFCCC secretariat is appointed by the U.N. secretary-general; that the U.N. serves as depository for the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol; and that the UNFCCC secretariat supports what it describes as the “largest annual United Nations conference” – most recently, the climate conference in Paris late last year.

The 1990 and 1994 laws obliged the administration to cut funding to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011 after it became the first U.N. agency to admit the Palestinians. It has sought waiver authority ever since to restore the funding, without success.

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