The Corner

Palestinian Authority Membership in UNESCO Should Trigger U.S. Withholding

According to a press release from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the Executive Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is soon expected to consider a request for full membership from the Palestinian Authority. This comes on the heels of last month’s effort by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas (who is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization) to gain full membership in the United Nations.

The U.N. Security Council referred Abbas’s application to its Committee on the Admission of New Members, even though the U.S. pledged to veto the application if it comes up for a formal vote in the Security Council. President Obama rightly characterized the membership bid as an inappropriate endeavor designed to isolate and delegitimize Israel.

But UNESCO is not the United Nations. The United States does not have a Security Council veto at its disposal to block Palestinian membership in the organization. Under the UNESCO constitution, “states not members of the United Nations Organization may be admitted to membership of the Organization, upon recommendation of the Executive Board, by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Conference.” Most decisions by the executive board require only a simple majority vote. Recommendations on membership are not listed among the few exceptions requiring a two-thirds majority in the board’s rules of procedure

Thus, while the U.S. is a member of UNESCO’s 58 country executive board and wields influence as the organization’s largest financial contributor, the U.S. cannot unilaterally block a recommendation of UNESCO membership for the Palestinian delegation. It would be virtually impossible for the U.S. to prevent a majority of UNESCO’s executive board from recommending membership for the Palestine delegation. It would be almost as hard for the U.S. to get 65 countries to oppose the Palestinian bid in UNESCO’s General Conference. Indeed, the Palestinians claim that over 120 countries already recognize them as a sovereign state and would support their bid for U.N. membership. If true, they would need fewer than ten additional votes to have support from more than two-thirds of UNESCO’s membership.

Under U.S. law this would be a significant event. U.S. Code Title 22, Section 287e states, “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.” Ironically for the Obama administration, which remains adamantly opposed to any withholding to the United Nations, this law (Public Law 101-246) was passed in 1989 by a Democratic Congress.

If the Palestinian delegation is successful in joining UNESCO as a full member, U.S. law should lead the administration to immediately and indefinitely freeze all U.S. funds going to UNESCO.

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

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