UNESCO Must Choose – “Palestine” or the World?


By: David Singer
The Obama administration formally announced its intention this week to ask Congress to waive a ban on American funding of 22% of UNESCO’s budget following UNESCO’s decision to admit “Palestine“ as its 195th member state on 31 October 2011.
The announcement did not come in a White House press release from President Obama.
Rather it was surreptitiously tucked away in an innocuous footnote to the budget that the White House presented to Congress – which contained the following statement:

“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,”

The State Department has squirreled away nearly $79 million into its 2013 budget in the hope that Congress will grant a legal waiver allowing such American funding to UNESCO to be restored.
That this is a forlorn hope was signalled by Rep.Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – the Chairperson of the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee – who stated:

“Any effort to walk back this funding cutoff will pave the way for the Palestinian leadership’s unilateral statehood scheme to drive on, and sends a disastrous message that the U.S. will fund UN bodies no matter what irresponsible decisions they make,”

American funding of  UNESCO was cut off automatically under U.S. legislation dating back to the 1990s, which mandated the spending freeze for any UN agency granting full membership to Palestine before the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. This law recognized that any such unilateral decisions would work against – rather than assist – any such agreement ever being concluded.
This loss of American funding will result in a black hole of $260 million in UNESCO ‘s budget to 2013.
UNESCO’s Director General – Ms Irina Bokova – has already signalled she is looking at achieving an overall cut of 29% in UNESCO programs for 2012 -2013 – which will adversely impact on UNESCO’s proposed global programs for the benefit of scores of millions of people over the next two years
Ms Bokova intends to reveal where she will be making her proposed cuts at the next meeting of UNESCO’s Executive Board commencing on 27 February.
Desperate to replace this lost American funding Ms Bokova has been accepting “donations” from some countries such as Turkey, Gabon and Timor Leste – which are conditional on being spent in those countries or neighbouring States – irrespective of where they rank in UNESCO’s scheme of priorities.
This will lead to even greater curtailment or abandonment of other programs – as UNESCO’s decision making power is subordinated to the demands of these individual states.
The US State Department needs to rethink its view that only an explicit waiver of the law can now free up American funding to avert the humanitarian crisis staring UNESCO in the face.
There is an alternative option that has been with UNESCO for almost three months – an alternative which UNESCO has refused to even discuss.
It involves UNESCO seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the following two legal issues relating to Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in breach of UNESCO’s own constitution:
  • What are the requirements that qualify an applicant to be admitted  as a member state of UNESCO under its Constitution and were these requirements satisfied in the case of “Palestine“?
  • What were the number of votes required under the Constitution to admit “Palestine” as a member state of UNESCO?
The cost to UNESCO of having these issues determined by the International Court would be $100000 in my estimate.
UNESCO’s continuing refusal to even discuss the merits of the legal arguments advanced in questioning the legality of its decision to admit Palestine – indicates that UNESCO has no answer to the detailed submission given to it.
Even if UNESCO sought to rebut that submission – then there still is a need for those two competing viewpoints to be judicially resolved.
In failing to approach the Court – UNESCO is clearly signalling that it is more interested in protecting its decision on “Palestine” from judicial review – rather than finding a possible legal way out of such decision – thus enabling it to regain the lost American funding and so allow  its existing global programs to be maintained. .
Continuing to play a narrow political game at the expense of a vast all embracing global humanitarian game can only have serious repercussions for UNESCO’s continued existence and relevance in the future.
If UNESCO is so confident of its legal position then spending $100000 to have that opinion set in stone will be money well spent and will result in the Court clarifying and defining the meaning of the Constitution when future applications for membership are made.
Ironically it is not a waiver of the law that the State Department should be futilely spending its time and effort trying to achieve. Rather it should be whispering in UNESCO’s ear the virtues of subjecting its decision to the law to try and get a favorable ruling that would immediately release the withheld American funds.
That of course would mean the demise of Palestine’s membership of UNESCO. Would that be so bad – if in fact it was found to have been granted in breach of UNESCO’s Constitution?
UNESCO is apparently not yet ready to face up to such a prospect. Until it does – people around the world will continue to suffer.

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