In a development that pleases few and infuriates many, the United States has been stripped of its voting rights at the United Nation's cultural agency, UNESCO. As of today, the U.S. has no decision-making power at the Paris-based organization because of its failure to pay dues for the last three years. But because the White House insists on keeping its membership in UNESCO, the U.S. is racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to an organization it has almost no influence in
"It's been quite a journey from having a Republican president in the form of George W. Bush making UNESCO a priority to now having the U.S. lose its influence and vote in the organization," Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, told The Cable.
The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 following a decision by world governments to approve Palestine as a member of the organization. The cut was automatic, thanks to U.S. laws that force a withdrawal of funds to any U.N. group that claims Palestine as a member. Ironically, today's development is frustrating some of the very people it was designed to please: supporters of Israel.
"It's hard to describe defunding UNESCO as anything but asinine," said a miffed and very pro-Israel Congressional aide. "In essence, we've simply given the Palestinians the authority to determine how the U.S. engages with the U.N. That's not in our interest nor is it in Israel's."
"Next year the Palestinians could decide to join the World Health Organization and the U.S. would be kicked out of WHO, which would wipe out our ability to deal with pandemics that affect America," added Yeo.
By all accounts, UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program, which protects the various cultural treasures of the world like the Statue of Liberty in New York or this quaint historic neighborhood in post-Soviet Georgia. But fundamentally, it was founded as an anti-extremist organization in 1946, taking on everything from clean water to girls education to scientific research to freedom of speech.
For membership, the U.N. charges the U.S. $80 million a year or 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget. If the U.S. wants its voting privileges back, it's going to have to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars at this point -- a burden that grows each year. Meanwhile, that 22 percent shortfall has cost UNESCO dearly, forcing it to cut a range of programs around the world. Unsurprisingly, first on the chopping block were U.S.-favored initiatives such as Holocaust awareness in Africa.
That's one way in which U.S. supporters of Israel lose out, but there are others as well. "Ironically, having a weakened U.S. at organizations such as UNESCO makes it all the more difficult to advocate against the constant stream of anti-Israel vitriol that we all too often see at some UN bodies," said the senior congressional aide. "Yet in the name of supporting Israel, the law triggering UNESCO defunding essentially ties one arm around our back when it comes to fighting off this crap."
Alternatively, Palestine-friendly members of Congress oppose the existing U.S. law because of the message it sends about America's commitment to a two-state solution. In essence: We support an independent Palestine in theory but not in practice.
"The antiquated laws that required us to cut funding after UNESCO members democratically voted to admit Palestine are a bad idea," Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn) told The Cable, "I call on my colleagues to overturn these laws by supporting legislation I plan to introduce soon. The United States must not voluntarily forfeit its leadership in the world community." Ellison's bill will give the president a waiver to continue funding the group.
The White House, in a statement to The Cable, also made clear it wasn't happy about the development. "President Obama has requested a legislative authority that would allow the United States to continue to pay our dues to U.N. specialized agencies that admit the Palestinians as a member state if it is in the U.S. national interest," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "Although that proposal has not yet been enacted, the President remains committed to that goal."
However, some pro-Israel hardliners in Congress such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen don't see things that way, and remain staunchly opposed to a waiver. "It rewards the Palestinian leadership's dangerous scheme to bypass negotiations with Israel and seek recognition of a self-declared ‘Palestinian state,'" Ros-Lehtinen said at the time of the vote. She has proposed legislation cutting off taxpayer money to any UN agency that "grants upgraded status to Palestine."
"Such strong action is the only way to deter other U.N. bodies from following in UNESCO's footsteps, and to prevent U.S. taxpayer dollars from paying for biased entities at the U.N.," she said.
Despite the opposition, some say the White House isn't trying hard enough to get congressional support from like-minded allies on the Hill. "If the administration is serious about undoing the damage caused at UNESCO, they've got to push hard for a waiver," said the aide. "It's an easy case to make, they just have to decide how hard they're going to make it."
Yeo, however, defended the administration. "President Obama has asked for a waiver. Secretary Clinton sent a letter to Congress making the case for a waiver, and Secretary Kerry too has indicated a need for greater flexibility on this issue," he said. "All of the right people have said the right things."
"The solution, of course, is for the president and Congress to work together," he added. The earliest legislative vehicle for a waiver fix is in the long-term continuing resolution, which the House and Senate are expected to tackle in mid January.
The biggest obstacle may be finding the oxygen to even discuss the issue given all the other topics that will occupy Congress's time this winter. "Despite the loss of our vote in the General Conference, the United States will continue our engagement at UNESCO, though we are concerned that the loss of our vote could leave a leadership vacuum that other governments that don't share our commitment to democratic principles may try to fill," said Hayden. "And the loss of U.S. contributions to UNESCO has already had an adverse effect on programs related to freedom of the press, internet governance, Holocaust education, and world heritage issues."