When the member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization voted last October to confer membership on the Palestinian Authority, they knew their decision would trigger the withdrawal of U.S. funding, which in dues alone accounted for more than $78 million per year, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s core budget. Current American law requires the U.S. to pull funding from any U.N.-affiliated organization that tries to confer statehood on the Palestinians before they have qualified for it through negotiations with Israel. UNESCO did it anyway, the assembled delegates clapping and cheering as they voted. The tally was 107 to 14, with 52 abstaining.
Since then, UNESCO’s Bulgarian director general, Irina Bokova, has been campaigning — not to undo UNESCO’s admission of “Palestine,” but to persuade U.S. authorities to resume forking out money to UNESCO. Bokova’s efforts have included two trips to Washington these past four months, including a U.S. tour starting in Washington this week. UNESCO’s website features press releases with headlines such as “UNESCO Director General Presses Washington to Restore US Funding,” over a photo of Bokova meeting in December with a U.S. congressman.
To this I can add the news that to supplement Bokova’s forays to the U.S., Paris-based UNESCO is now quietly planning to open an office in Washington, sometime in the next few months. Were the aim simply to represent UNESCO to the U.S., there would be no need for this. UNESCO already has a liaison office at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York. But this new office, in Washington, will be positioned to maximize access to U.S. policymakers, especially Congress. UNESCO’s current plan is that this office will be run by a former congressional aide, George Papagiannis, who has been working since 2007 for UNESCO. Papagiannis’s résumé includes a stint in the late 1990s as communications director for Representative Nancy Pelosi.
Not that UNESCO has made any official announcement of plans to open a Washington office. Nor has UNESCO released any budget or job descriptions for setting up and staffing this new operation. The choice of Papagiannis has apparently been made already, by Bokova herself.
But a whiff of this plan turned up in a set of “Talking Points” that Papagiannis dispatched recently to various UNESCO advocates in the U.S., and that I obtained. In his talking points, Papagiannis lauds various UNESCO programs, such as literacy training in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he says will suffer unless the U.S. resumes bankrolling the organization. (There is no mention that UNESCO wastes millions, according to its own auditors, or that UNESCO could preserve its better programs by scrapping its worst.) At the bottom of these talking points, Papagiannis’s name and U.S. and French mobile-phone numbers appear, along with the label “UNESCO Washington Office.”
This was surprising to me, because currently, UNESCO has no “Washington Office.” I queried UNESCO’s liaison office in New York about whether they had any companion premises in Washington. They replied, by e-mail: “We don’t have an office yet, but one will be opening. You need to contact George Papagiannis.”
So, this past weekend I phoned Papagiannis, reaching him in Paris, where he is currently based with UNESCO. He confirmed that UNESCO is in the process of creating a full-time presence in Washington, that the organization has already begun seeking premises, and that “once we have an office, there will be a liaison in that office, and that liaison would be me.”
On whose authority is this office being set up? “On the authority of the director-general,” said Papagiannis, referring to Irina Bokova. While UNESCO’s mission is to promote culture, it seems the main aim of this office will be to promote UNESCO itself, with a special focus on the U.S. capital, where, Papagiannis says, there is a failure to fully appreciate UNESCO. He explained, “My remit in this is very much focused on Washington.” His brief, he said, will include “liaising” with “various stakeholders.” Will he be meeting with U.S. lawmakers? He said he’d be glad to oblige “if members of Congress and their staff would like to meet with me.”
Does that mean he will be lobbying U.S. authorities to restore funding to UNESCO? “I am not lobbying,” replied Papagiannis. “I am raising awareness about the organization.”
When I phoned Papagiannis, he was about to leave Paris for Washington. He is now in the U.S., accompanying Bokova, who is devoting nearly two weeks (March 13–25) to her third visit to America’s shores since September. After starting her trip in Washington, Bokova plans to visit Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. According to UNESCO’s website, her agenda includes meetings with the media, private-sector companies, charitable foundations, and “government officials.”
This isn’t the first U.S. trip on which Bokova has availed herself of the talents of a former U.S. congressional staffer. According to one congressional aide, on her previous trip to Washington this past December, Bokova was squired to meetings with lawmakers by the current U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion. Killion is a veteran of the Hill, where he helped pave the way for America’s 2003 return to UNESCO, after President Ronald Reagan pulled the U.S. out in 1984.
Before President Obama appointed Killion in 2009 as the U.S. envoy to UNESCO, Killion served for years as a staffer and top adviser on U.N. affairs to the late Representative Tom Lantos. Killion’s State Department biography records that “in this capacity he worked on legislation that Mr. Lantos introduced and passed in 2001 authorizing the U.S.’s re-entry to UNESCO.”
Killion is an impassioned advocate of “active engagement” with UNESCO, arguing that this is the way to influence the organization for the better. But on his watch as ambassador, there’s been little U.S. influence on display. One reason may be that Killion keeps hinting that no matter what UNESCO does, the Obama administration will seek ways to keep American money flowing.
That’s how Killion’s message played out last fall, following the vote on the Palestinian Authority. Killion delivered a statement explaining why America voted no. Quite reasonably, he invoked the same rationale that underpins the U.S. laws passed in the 1990s: The path to Palestinian statehood lies in good-faith, direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, not a Palestinian end-run at the U.N. But Killion then undercut his own message. Speaking to the same UNESCO crowd that had just overwhelmingly scorned the U.S. position, he promised, “We pledge to continue our efforts to find ways to support and strengthen the important work of this vital organization.”
The Obama administration has since greatly expanded on Killion’s kow-tow to UNESCO. In February, President Obama submitted a 2013 State Department budget that lists $78.9 million for UNESCO, despite the legal ban on funding for the organization. In a footnote comes the explanation: “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.”
By now, there’s quite a crowd trying to “work with Congress” to reopen America’s river of money to UNESCO. Let’s reprise the star players: former congressional staffers Killion and Papagiannis, plus the U.S. State Department, plus UNESCO director-general Bokova — whose job is supposed to be administering UNESCO, not pressuring the U.S. to change its laws.
Meanwhile, over at UNESCO, who’s minding the store? Just last week, UNESCO’s 58-member executive board, which includes Syria, voted to keep Syria’s bloody regime on UNESCO’s human-rights committee. Also last week, UNESCO’s board approved a long-debated $3 million science prize sponsored by dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, with the concession that it will be named not for Obiang himself, but for the country he has been tyrannizing for the past 33 years, Equatorial Guinea.
As for Palestinian membership, there’s no sign that UNESCO’s members, its secretariat, or for that matter the U.S. State Department are toiling to undo it. All the pressure is on Congress, to accommodate UNESCO and the Palestinians by changing U.S. laws.
When the Palestinian flag was raised in December at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wisely warned that “asserting the existence of a Palestinian state does not make it so. It only makes real peace harder to achieve.” She added: “The only thing deterring more UN bodies from following in UNESCO’s reckless, anti-peace footsteps is the credible threat of a U.S. funding cutoff, as U.S. law requires. Money talks at the UN.”
Here’s a suggestion. Last April, UNESCO’s auditors reported that with better management, “UNESCO can make substantial savings of up to $3.1 million annually in Headquarters travel costs.” The auditors focused on such items as UNESCO’s failure to issue clear travel rules and the extravagant use of business-class air tickets, which accounted for 37 percent of all air-travel costs. And clearly UNESCO could achieve yet more savings by cutting back on excursions to Washington by Director-General Bokova and her retinue, and scrapping Bokova’s plans for a Washington office. That would free more time and resources for Bokova and her staff to concentrate on cleaning up UNESCO, rather than trying to meddle with the laws of the United States.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.