UNESCO Chief Bemoans Financial Crisis, But Doesn’t Urge Reversal of ‘Palestine’ Decision

By Patrick Goodenough | October 12, 2012 | 4:48 AM EDT

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova addresses the agency’s General Conference in Paris on Tuesday Oct. 25, 2011. A week later UNESCO voted to admit 'Palestine.' (Photo: UNESCO/Eric Bouttier)

(CNSNews.com) – Despite efforts led by Islamic states to prop it up, UNESCO faces its “worst ever” financial crisis due to a U.S. funding cut following its decision a year ago to admit “Palestine,” the head of the U.N. cultural agency said Thursday.

Rather than urge member states to reverse their decision to grant membership to a non-sovereign entity however, Irina Bokova directed her appeals to the U.S., calling on it to change its stance on funding.

“I hope that next year the United States will make the choice and decide on the future of their participation in UNESCO, because they will lose not only their voting rights, but also their credibility,” wire services quoted her as telling reporters in Paris.

Once a UNESCO member is two years in arrears, it loses its voting rights.

As she has done before – including on lobbying visits to Washington following the defunding – Bokova on Thursday highlighted the value of UNESCO projects likely to appeal to many Americans, including Holocaust education programs and tsunami research.

She was not quoted as mentioning any of its more controversial stances, such as decisions bolstering Palestinian Authority (P.A.) claims to sites whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years or its decision last July to support a P.A. “emergency” application to have the traditional birthplace of Jesus recognized as an endangered World Heritage site – overruling the advice of independent experts and appeals of local church leaders.

Outlining the troubles facing UNESCO, Bokova said it had cut expenses, canceled projects and had not filled 336 posts – of a total workforce of 2,000 – that had become vacant through departures or retirement.

“I think UNESCO was caught in between the political turmoil of the Middle Eastern conflict,” said the former Bulgarian foreign minister. “I think this is unfair.”

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova meets with U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France on October 9, 2012. Bokova said Thursday her agency was facing its “worst ever” financial situation. (UN Photo by Evan Schneider)

Bokova’s reported comments did not include any appeals to UNESCO member-states to overturn their earlier decision – a step that would allow the U.S. to restore funding.

Following last October’s vote the Obama administration reluctantly cut funding in compliance with a 1990 law barring 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 four years later, 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.” Both laws were passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

The cutoff was a severe blow to UNESCO, which relied on the U.S. for 22 percent of its operating budget – some $80 million a year – plus a further $3-$4 million a year in extra-budgetary funds.


UNESCO’s budget for 2012-2013 biennium is $653 million, and Bokova said Thursday the agency began the year with a deficit of $150 million, a shortfall that was “crippling our capacity to deliver.”

An extraordinary fundraising effort this year had brought in a total of $69 million, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar leading the way with $20 million donations each, but it was “not sustainable on a long-term basis.”

The Obama administration wants Congress to approve a waiver to the legislation that would allow the U.S. to continue supporting UNESCO in the future.

In its fiscal year 2013 State Department budget request, it requested $79 million for UNESCO, with a footnote stating, “The Department of State intends to work with Congress to seek legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO.”

Republican lawmakers at the time criticized the move, saying that reversing the cutoff would encourage other U.N. agencies to follow UNESCO’s lead and admit the Palestinians.

Israel and the U.S. say the bid for U.N. recognition is an attempt to bypass the process of seeking a negotiated settlement to the conflict, to which Palestinian leaders committed themselves under the Oslo accords.

The P.A. now wants the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade the status of “Palestine” from its current one of “observer entity” to that of “observer state.” P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas made the appeal in New York last month and hopes for a debate and vote in November.

When UNESCO voted on admitting “Palestine” last October, 107 out of 173 voting members supported the measure, while 14 countries opposed it. Another 52 abstained.

Voting “no” were the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, Panama, five European Union (E.U.) members – Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden – and the Pacific island nations of Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The E.U. was divided over the issue, with 11 members – Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia and Spain – voting in favor of the resolution and the remaining 11 abstaining.

A Greek government minister visiting Israel this week told the Jerusalem Post that the E.U. is advising the P.A. to be careful of pushing ahead with the bid announced by Abbas last month, because of “the possible negative consequences of their decision.”

Boosted by the UNESCO vote, Palestinian leaders late last year had intended to seek membership of a string of other U.N. bodies, but after U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon raised grave concerns about the financial implications, they backed down.

Republican lawmakers saw this as a victory and evidence that the defunding was effective. But U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice last March disputed that the move had had the intended deterrent effect, arguing that the defunding had hurt America’s interests more than those of the Palestinians.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow