Politics & Policy

The U.S. Should Withdraw from UNESCO

In granting membership to the Palestinian Authority, UNESCO forfeited its claims to U.S. funds.

Last fall, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted membership to the Palestinian Authority. President Obama then stopped all U.S. financial contributions to UNESCO, as required by U.S. law.

This didn’t sit well with UNESCO director general Irina Bokova. Earlier this month, she ramped up her campaign to get the U.S. to change its law — in order to get American dollars flowing her way once more.

Bokova argues that UNESCO is a valuable voice for integrity and moderation. To cut its funding is not only improper, she says, but an act that threatens programs vital to U.S. interests.

Yet a close look at some of the examples offered by Bokova reveals that UNESCO is often superfluous or merely convenient rather than critical. Worse, the organization has made a number of poor decisions in recent years, decisions that undercut UNESCO’s claims to be a voice of moderation, ethical standards, and human rights.

Bokova also makes a plea for sympathy, claiming that the funding cutoff was “very unexpected.” In reality, the fact that acceptance of the PA would force the U.S. to stop funds was much discussed weeks before the final vote on October 31, 2011. (See here and here, for example.) Indeed, when asked about it on October 5, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered, “We are certainly aware of strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition.” In subsequent weeks, the administration made UNESCO and the other member states well aware that the law allowed no wiggle room: Funding would be suspended if UNESCO granted membership to the Palestinians.

Earlier this year, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Brad Sherman (D., Calif.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, reiterated the rationale for the law in a bipartisan letter to Secretary Clinton:

This U.S. position and the ensuring U.S. laws were vital in successfully derailing attempts . . . to seek de facto recognition of a Palestinian state from the UN via the granting of membership to “Palestine” in UN agencies. . . . 

A UN body that acts so irresponsibly — a UN 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 UN bodies to admit “Palestine” as a member.

Bokova is right about one thing, however. It is inappropriate for the U.S. to maintain UNESCO membership while simultaneously prohibiting all funding to the organization. This leads to an accrual of arrears, creates budgetary uncertainty for UNESCO, and may fuel false hopes in Bokova and others that U.S. funding will be forthcoming. The U.S. should address these issues by withdrawing from UNESCO.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.


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