Despite objections and warnings from the Obama administration, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted full membership to the Palestinian Authority in 2011. That decision ran afoul of two U.S. laws, passed in the early 1990s, that prohibit U.S. funding for any U.N. organization that grants membership to the Palestine Liberation Organization or “any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
Following UNESCO’s embrace of the Palestinians, the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to amend the law so that U.S. funds might once again flow to UNESCO. Thus far, Congress has rebuffed those efforts.
Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Brad Sherman (D., Calif.) explained their opposition to changing the law by noting that the funding prohibitions are
vital in successfully derailing attempts . . . to seek de facto recognition of a Palestinian state from the U.N. via the granting of membership to “Palestine” in U.N. agencies. . . . A U.N. body that acts so irresponsibly — a U.N. body that admits states that do not exist — renders itself unworthy of U.S. taxpayer dollars. . . . Weakening U.S. law, on the other hand, would undermine our interests and our ally Israel by providing a green light for other U.N. bodies to admit “Palestine” as a member.
In December 2013, Senator Mary Landrieu (D., La.) authored a letter asking House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders to let the United States pay dues for UNESCO’s World Heritage Program. This, she argued, would improve the chances that Poverty Point — a historic site in Louisiana — would receive UNESCO approval for status as a World Heritage site. Landrieu believes this designation would increase “tourism to the region [and] help improve the local economy.” She notes that the exemption could also improve prospects for 13 other sites seeking World Heritage status.
Research on the impact of World Heritage Site status casts doubt on Senator Landrieu’s argument. A 2007 PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP study concluded that “the impact WHS [World Heritage Site] status makes on visitor motivations is usually very marginal and there is little evidence that becoming a WHS automatically generates additional visitors. Aspiring sites should be wary of this.”
Two years later, a study by Rebanks Consulting Ltd. and Trends Business Research Ltd. found that “WHS [World Heritage Site] status achieves little automatically, and therefore many WHSs have few benefits to show for it, but some WHSs that have tried to achieve benefits appear to have used the WHS designation with value.” Notably for prospective sites like Poverty Point, the study observed: “The existing economic geography of the site matters — a remote site with a small local population and a finite tourist market will confer limited social and economic benefits.”
More recently, a report by EUROPARC Consulting concluded that, although the designation could possibly be used beneficially in coordination with other efforts, “World Heritage status — as such — does not significantly affect tourist numbers, especially if the site is already well known.”
In other words, the economic impact of World Heritage designation is, at best, uncertain. Even if it is realized, however, that impact is likely to be small and (as with many other UNESCO activities) could be pursued through alternative efforts or programs.
It is true, as Senator Landrieu notes in her letter, that the U.S. provided voluntary support for the World Heritage Program after the U.S. withdrew in 1984 and before it announced its intent to rejoin in 2003. But U.S. concerns with UNESCO during that period had to do with UNESCO policies and mismanagement; voluntary contributions could circumvent those problems.
Now, though, the major concern is that other organizations could follow in UNESCO’s footsteps and grant membership to the Palestinians. But granting Palestinian membership in the U.N. and its specialized agencies before the Palestinians formally recognize Israel and negotiate peace with that nation threatens both U.S. and Israeli interests. That’s why the U.S. remains prepared to use its veto to block Palestinian membership in the U.N.
Weakening funding prohibitions for U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians — especially when the exemption does not involve U.S. security interests — would invite additional exemptions down the road and signal that the U.S. lacks resolve in opposing Palestinian membership in U.N. organizations prior to reconciliation with Israel.
— Brett Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.