UNESCO confronts a budgetary and political crisis following America’s automatic defunding of the U.N. agency in 2011 and UNESCO's decision last Friday stripping the United States of its voting rights.
The General Conference of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization is
meeting in Paris from November 5 through 20. The General Conference is UNESCO’s legislature, which assembles every two years to set policies, approve programs, and adopt a budget. It elects the Executive Board and appoints a Director-General every four years.
While tensions have existed between the U.S. and UNESCO, particularly over the last four decades, the current crisis can be traced to October 5, 2011 when UNESCO's Executive Board granted the Palestinians full membership in the organization, a measure opposed by the U.S.
Forty members of the Executive Board voted in favor, four against, and fourteen abstained.
Forty-three nations then submitted Draft Resolution 9.1 to the General Conference on October 29, 2011. The body passed the resolution to admit the Palestinians to UNESCO, a result that had not been achieved since such the campaign for admission first started in 1989. The final vote tally was: 107 aye, including Afghanistan, Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Jordan, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Turkey; 14 nay, including Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.S.; 52 abstentions, including Italy, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom; and 21 absent including Ethiopia Palestinians previously maintained observer status at UNESCO, dating back to 1974. President and Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas applied to the Security Council in September 2011 for full membership in the U.N., but that action failed while the UNESCO effort succeeded.
Membership by the Palestinians in UNESCO has been viewed by many as a way to compel legal recognition of Palestinian statehood without the benefit of bilateral talks with Israel. That is why the U.S., which tried to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after their suspension in October 2010, protested the admissions process.
Ambassador David Killion, U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO, told the General Conference:
The United States has been very clear about the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the only path to the Palestinian state that we all seek is through direct negotiations. There are no shortcuts, and we believe efforts such as the one we have witnessed today are counterproductive....[W]e recognize that this action today will complicate our ability to support UNESCO’s programs. There are other ways of promoting the cause of the Palestinian people that would not have involved seeking premature membership at UNESCO. We sincerely regret that the strenuous and well-intentioned efforts of many delegations to avoid this result fell short.
The U.S. automatically cut off its support for UNESCO programming by the terms of the Foreign Relations and Intercourse Authorizations, codified at 22 U.S.C. § 287e. In 1990 the U.S. Congress ordered that "[n]o funds ... shall be available for the United Nations ... which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states." (Public Law 101-246). And in 1994 Congress proclaimed that the U.S. "shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution: (1) 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, or (2) to the United Nations, if the United Nations grants full membership as a state in the United Nations to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, during any period in which such membership is effective." (Public Law 103-236).
America defunded 22% of UNESCO's operating budget, roughly $240 million, and withheld $60 million immediately after the UNESCO vote in 2011.
Facing an immediate financial crisis, UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova paid a visit to Capitol Hill in December 2012, supporting President Barak Obama's efforts to lift the funding ban.But lawmakers on Capitol Hill remained steadfast. Senator Danial Coats (R-IN) proposed a Senate bill affirming the defunding law and presented a warning, "The Palestinian Authority may use this vote [of membership in UNESCO] as a precedent to pursue membership in other United Nations affiliated organizations, contrary to the best interests of those organizations and the Palestinians themselves."
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) voiced similar views, urging "the State Department to enforce U.S. law and immediately cut off all funding to UNESCO and any other international organization that recognizes a Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership is aware of U.S. law on this issue and it is very unfortunate that it is forcing the U.S. to take such drastic steps."
Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), Chairwoman of the influential House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee actively garnered support from lawmakers to uphold the payment suspension.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on Granger’s committee, took the position that the "mission of every agency affiliated with the United Nations is to foster—not thwart—conditions for peace and stability," concluding that UNESCO "fails that test" by "interfering with the prospects for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians..."
Joining their efforts was Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), a critical voice in the discussion.
Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations at that time, appeared before the House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee in March 2012 to support refunding UNESCO. She told committee members:
Current U.S. law runs counter to U.S. national security interests by enabling the Palestinians to determine whether the U.S. can continue to fund and lead effectively in key U.N. specialized agencies that help protect Americans.
In the case of UNESCO, due to irresponsible Palestinian actions, we have withheld our funding for valuable work that supports key U.S. interests.
We believe our membership and participation in UNESCO is valuable and worth supporting.
While President Obama and other White House officials continue to press lawmakers to restore funding for UNESCO, the administration remains hampered in its efforts by UNESCO’s adoption of resolutions focused on Israel.
The Executive Board last month, over America's objection, supported six resolutions criticizing Israel and calling on that nation to cease actions reportedly affecting the "authenticity, integrity and cultural heritage" of sacred and archaeological sites. Arab nations, Russia, and France endorsed the resolutions, and The Jordan Times reported that the Jordanian king's actions to move the resolutions forward were "decisive."
In April of this year, the U.S. prevented these resolutions—which numbered five at that time—from being offered to the Executive Board when Israel agreed to terms that would have allowed UNESCO inspectors to assess the Old City of Jerusalem as well as an ascent to the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif.
The New York Times learned that the deal "was brokered in an unusual partnership between the United States and Russia, with the help of Jordan, Brazil and the director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova" and that "[t]he willingness of the Palestinians to table the resolutions was a direct result of recent visits to the Middle East by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who secured a Palestinian agreement not to 'initiate negative moves in international organizations.'"
Israel, however, canceled the inspection team's scheduled May 2013 trip, citing concerns over "politicization," according to The Times of Israel.
Soon thereafter, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee (WHC), meeting in Cambodia in June, adopted language proposed by the Jordanian delegation to censure Israel. Decision 37 COM 7A.26 declared, in part, that the WHC "[d]eplores the continued Israeli failure to cooperate and facilitate the implementation of the ... reactive monitoring mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls" and "[d|eeply deplores the persistence of Israeli archaeological excavations and works in the Old City of Jerusalem and on both sides of its Walls and the failure of Israel to cease such works."
Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the measure, calling it "a dark day for UNESCO" and saying that "the Palestinians are exploiting their admission to UNESCO ... in order to hijack and drag this important U.N. agency into the abyss of politicized manipulation." The ministry concluded that "Israel will uphold its commitments ... to ensure freedom of worship of all faiths in Jerusalem."
UNESCO then acceded to a Palestinian request to have Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, placed on the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger. Only 44 sites across the globe are on the endangered list. The church is located in the Palestinian-administered portion of the occupied West Bank. The U.S. objected to both listings.
That set the stage last month for UNESCO’s passage of the six resolutions.
Explaining why the U.S. was the only nation to object to every one of the six Executive Board resolutions, Ambassador Killion issued a statement titled Explanation of Vote by Ambassador Killion on Middle East Resolutions Targeting Israel to say "We are very disappointed that this body, the UNESCO Executive Board, rather than live up to its lofty goals to build peace in the minds of men and women, once again chose to needlessly politicize these issues before us." Killion described how "such actions … strike a highly discordant note, and are disheartening to us." "This is supposed to be a place for peacebuilding," the ambassador noted. "Now we have this Board faced with six—I repeat six—decisions directed at a single Member State. This is truly ridiculous, and obviously counter-productive." Ambassador Killion questioned, "We ask you, are your actions today helping to build two states, living side by side? Are we working in this body to build trust and confidence?"
Canada’s government too expressed frustration. Minister Christian Paradis observed that "UNESCO was dealt a severe blow following the decision to admit the Palestinian delegation into the organization, which resulted in an unprecedented cash-flow crisis. Canada rejects efforts to politicize UNESCO and believes that UNESCO is always stronger when there is consensus."
The six resolutions adopted find their roots in an October 2010 UNESCO Executive Board vote that "adopted five decisions concerning UNESCO’s work in the occupied Palestinian and Arab Territories." The U.S. often cast the sole vote in objection to these proposals.
The 2010 resolutions were UNESCO's response to a controversial decision in February 2010 by the Israeli government to place Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on a national heritage list, a move criticized by the U.S. and one which prompted Palestinian protests. The sites' significance as well as the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem to the three major monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are subjects of continuing debate and contention.
The UNESCO resolutions report stated, in part:
•Jerusalem’s cultural heritage: The Board voted 34 to 1 (19 abstentions) to "reaffirm the religious significance of the Old City of Jerusalem for Muslims, Christians and Jews." The decision expresses "deep concern over the ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, which contradicts UNESCO decisions and conventions and United Nations and Security Council resolutions." It invites the Director-General to appoint experts to be stationed in East Jerusalem to report on all aspects covering the architectural, educational, cultural and demographical situation there. It also invites the Israelis to facilitate the work of the experts in conformity with Israel’s adherence to UNESCO decisions and conventions.
•The Palestinian sites of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem: the Board voted 44 to one (12 abstentions) to reaffirm that the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.
The U.S Mission to UNESCO issued a statement of dissatisfaction, expressing that "the United States broke with UNESCO’s long-tradition of consensus and voted against five resolutions that unfairly singled out Israel, and which can only serve to politicize the organization’s work." The statement went on to say:
In the past, those items related to the Mughrabi Ascent, Jerusalem, Gaza and educational and cultural institutions in the Palestinian territories have always noted UNESCO’s accomplishments, cited continuing challenges, and encouraged all parties to work together toward a common goal, consistent with UNESCO’s mission.
During this Executive Board, the Arab states sponsoring the five resolutions made clear their unwillingness to negotiate, leaving one-sided, empty political condemnations that the United States felt were unhelpful to all involved parties. UNESCO’s expertise does not lie in accounting for the work of other United Nations bodies, nor should it take on a political role that it was neither conceived for, nor is within its competence.
Ambassador David Killion voted NO on all five of the Middle East resolutions before the Executive Board .... In voting against the UNESCO draft decision that stated that Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarch's are "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories", Ambassador Killion stated "...we cannot support this draft decision, which supposes authority that UNESCO does not and cannot possess".
The events occurring from 2010 through today recall the on and off again tensions that mark the U.S.-UNESCO relationship.
UNESCO removed Israel from membership in 1974 because of alleged archaeological harm to Islamic sites on the Temple Mount. But Israel earned reinstatement in 1977 after the U.S. pledged to withhold funds, which even then amounted to roughly a quarter of UNESCO's budget.
President Ronald Reagan later removed the U.S. from UNESCO at the end of 1984. The reasons for withdrawal were, according to the State Department, that "UNESCO has extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with; has exhibited a hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press; and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.''
President George W. Bush returned America to UNESCO in October 2003, explaining a year earlier, "As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO. This organization has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”
But sometime later, a 2010 UNESCO ethics office report may have raised eyebrows about the agency's reform. The report identified specific areas of agency abuse:
•The Ethics office is concerned by the fact that we received many requests from UNESCO employees about alleged abuse of authority or harassment by their supervisors.
•There also appears to be a failure by employees at all levels to take responsibility for their work, and an unwillingness to delegate authority. Many people who contact the Ethics Office, are more preoccupied in letting us know what they are not responsible for....
•The Ethics Office has received more and more complaints about the non-respect of private legal and financial obligations by UNESCO employees, sometimes by inappropriately using their diplomatic immunity.
And just last month, UNESCO's praise for Che Guavare's writings sparked the ire of both supporters and critics of the U.N. agency. "The United States Government strongly objects to the inscription of the writings of Che Guevara in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register," protested Ambassador Killion, adding that "Che Guevara tortured and killed countless innocent people. His writings are antithetical to UNESCO's values and mission to promote peace in the minds of men.... Inscribing words such as these makes a mockery of UNESCO’s Memory of the World program...."
Cuban born Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, who holds influence over UNESCO's funding, voiced a strong rebuke of the decision and the agency:
UNESCO continued its longstanding tradition of making a mockery of its own institution…. This decision is more than an insult to the families of those Cubans who were lined up and summarily executed by Che and his merciless cronies but it also serves as a direct contradiction to the UNESCO ideals of encouraging peace and universal respect for human rights. This latest reprehensible action is a microcosm of the existing problems within UNESCO today. There isn’t any semblance of common sense left in that body.... The Obama Administration is wrong to continue to seek to restore funding to UNESCO..
UNESCO member nations are worried about the U.S. funding gap, and some at the November General Conference meeting have asked other wealthy governments to cover the budget shortfall.
China, meanwhile, may try to fill the political vacuum. In the same way that last month's federal government shutdown absented President Obama from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, leaving Chinese President Xi Jinping ready and willing to do business, the U.S.’s voting absence from the General Conference might allow newly elected UNESCO President Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education of China, to gather greater influence.
It is also possible that the continued absence of American cash and influence could shrink UNESCO, forcing the organization to rethink its aims and to reflect on its culture of consensus, or lack thereof.
UNESCO is already under fire by the U.K. for inefficiency and lack of transparency. That nation seeks reform. "If we are honest, as Member States we are inherently incoherent, and it is that incoherence we should really focus on for our future strategy, the U.K. told the General Conference last week. "We need more action on transparency too. Its a simple enough question, can I find out what UNESCO does, with what resources, to what effect and with which partners in my country or any other? If not why not? ... Let us be clear, this organisation is funded by our taxpayers. Their right to know what goes on here is at least as strong and valid as their right to know what goes on in government at home."
The U.S. State Department continues to hope that the U.S. will have an impact on the organization. A statement issued by the agency announced, "We note a loss of vote in the General Conference is not a loss of U.S. membership. The United States intends to continue its engagement with UNESCO in every possible way–we can attend meetings and participate in debate, and we will maintain our seat and vote as an elected member of the Executive Board until 2015."
Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, however, show few signs that they are willing to write UNESCO a multi-million dollar check in time for the General Conference’s final session next week or at any other time in the near future. So while Director-General Bokova advertises at the Paris meeting that "The world needs more UNESCO," she will need much more money and stronger political support to sell that idea."