Politics & Policy

No Vote for Uncle Sam in UNESCO?

That’s no big deal.

The U.S. is expected to lose its vote in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) General Conference on Friday because it has not paid its dues since 2011.

This alarms people like former assistant secretary of state for international organizations Esther Brimmer. Earlier this week, she argued that loss of a vote will impede U.S. efforts to defend its interests and those of Israel, imperil UNESCO programs that advance U.S. interests, and punish “pro-U.S. United Nations agencies that have no control over Palestinians.” These concerns are overblown.  

UNESCO member states granted full membership to the Palestinian Authority in 2011 over the objections of the Obama administration. Prior to the vote, the U.S. repeatedly warned the organization that it would have no choice but to discontinue funding if the organization granted the Palestinians membership. UNESCO’s General Conference nonetheless approved Palestinian membership with a vote of 107 in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions.

That vote triggered two U.S. laws, passed in the early 1990s, prohibiting U.S. funding for any U.N. organization that granted membership to the Palestine Liberation Organization or “any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

Article IV of the UNESCO constitution states: “A Member State shall have no vote in the General Conference if the total amount of contributions due from it exceeds the total amount of contributions payable by it for the current year and the immediately preceding calendar year.” Because of non-payment in part of 2011 and all of 2012 and 2013, U.S. arrears exceed this level and America will likely have its voting privileges suspended. The constitution further stipulates that the General Conference “may nevertheless permit such a Member State to vote, if it is satisfied that failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member State,” but such permission is unlikely to be granted in this case.

What are the consequences of losing our vote in UNESCO? Not many.

The General Conference adopts decisions by a simple majority or, in some instances, a two-thirds majority. The unfortunate reality is that, when it comes to controversial decisions, the U.S. usually finds itself on the wrong end of a landslide vote. Exhibit A: the aforementioned 2011 vote on Palestinian membership.

That vote has been followed by additional lopsided — and wrongheaded — decisions. For example:

‐UNESCO elected Syria to the organization’s human-rights committee in 2011 over U.S. objections and despite evidence that it was slaughtering its own citizens. The U.S. effort to reverse that decision also failed.

‐UNESCO’s board decided in 2012 to approve a prize donated to UNESCO by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, dictator of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Western nations and human-rights groups had decried the prize as besmirching the reputation of UNESCO.

‐Last summer, UNESCO approved the Palestinian request to add the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Pilgrimage Route to its World Heritage List over Israeli and U.S. opposition.

‐UNESCO’s executive board adopted six decisions condemning Israel — this year. The U.S. was the only country that opposed all of these resolutions (Israel is not a member of UNESCO’s executive board).  

‐This summer, UNESCO listed the Life and Works of Ernesto Che Guevara among the valued contributions of mankind meriting inclusion in its Memory of the World Program. Listing the works of a brutal murderer alongside truly rare and unique works of art is appalling.

These actions are at odds with UNESCO’s claims to be a voice of moderation, ethical standards, and human rights. They also cast doubt on U.S. influence in UNESCO and the import of its vote in defense of our interests or those of Israel.

As for UNESCO’s work, the organization is often superfluous or merely convenient rather than critical. Take some examples cited by Brimmer:

‐Afghan literacy programs are funded not by U.S.-assessed contributions to UNESCO but by Japanese voluntary contributions. UNESCO manages the programs in coordination with the Afghan government. UNESCO is not the only organization — within the U.N. system or outside it — able to perform these activities.

‐UNESCO’s Holocaust education programs won’t wither without U.S. support. According to investigative reporter Claudia Rosett, UNESCO has only one full-time staff member dedicated to Holocaust education, and that worker’s salary is paid “out of a donation from Israel. . . . UNESCO’s annual contribution comes to a niggardly $215,000.” By contrast, the U.S. spends tens of millions on Holocaust education annually, including $47 million for the Holocaust Museum in fiscal year 2012.

‐The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which leads UNESCO’s tsunami efforts, was budgeted $10.4 million for 2012–13. The U.S. share is $1.14 million per year. Although not all of the IOC’s funds go to its tsunami programs, the total IOC budget is a fraction of the amount spent annually by the U.S. on tsunami-related programs to benefit America and other countries.

According to a 2011 United Kingdom government report, UNESCO performs poorly even when compared with other U.N. programs.

The bottom line is that America’s interest in supporting UNESCO is not critical — something President Reagan recognized in 1984 when he decided to withdraw from UNESCO. The U.S. rejoined in 2003 in recognition of reforms the organization had made, not because of any perceived damage to U.S. interests from not being a member.

The laws currently barring U.S. contributions to UNESCO were not “poorly written,” as asserted by Brimmer. They are performing exactly as intended. Nor are they “relics.” Palestinian membership in the U.N. and its specialized agencies prior to formal recognition of Israel by the Palestinians and a negotiated peace threatens U.S. and Israeli interests, which is why the U.S. remains prepared to use its veto to block Palestinian membership in the U.N.

Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have a veto over membership in U.N. organizations like UNESCO. The threat of the U.S.’s withholding money, made credible by the funding prohibition to UNESCO, has impeded the Palestinian membership effort. A majority of U.N. member states may support the Palestinian cause, but they also value U.S. financial contributions. Eliminating the law would be a green light for other specialized agencies to follow UNESCO and grant membership to the Palestinians. The most effective means for preventing this is to maintain and enforce the current funding prohibitions.

Critics like Brimmer are right about one thing, however. It is inappropriate for the U.S. to maintain UNESCO membership while simultaneously refusing to provide any funding. The Obama administration should act responsibly and withdraw from UNESCO.     

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


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