Jason Stern is a M.A. Candidate in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He blogs and tweets under the handle @IbnLarry.
To recap yesterday’s events, UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as its newest member, bolstering Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to gain international recognition in lieu of a functioning peace process. In all, 107 states voted in favor of admitting Palestine, with 52 abstentions and only 14 nays.
As promised, the US voted against the measure and immediately cut its funding for UNESCO. The US provides UNESCO more than $80 million a year, or about 22% of the group’s budget. While $20 million have already been provided this year, the remaining $60 million will be sorely missed. Programmatic and staff cuts will be unavoidable. Given the impending damage, it’s clear why there were so many abstentions. These states were not expressing ambivalence towards Palestinian membership, but rather towards the implications of that membership to UNESCO’s mission.
Not surprisingly, the US vote and funding cut sparked a litany of criticism against the Obama administration. For example, Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah tweeted, “Obama has turned out to be the most anti-Palestinian president since … um GW Bush an [sic] Bill Clinton.” He continued, “US cut funds to UNESCO because of Obama’s anti-Palestinian vote that he hopes will increase his campaign funds from Zionist fanatics.”
Such lines of criticism—and Abunimah was one of many pushing them—are patently unfair. According to the State Department, “Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers long-standing legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO.”
These legislative restrictions derive from two laws in particular passed back in the 1990’s (full text here). The first prohibits funding any organ of the UN that treats the Palestinian Liberation Organization— which formally represents the Palestinians at the UN— as a member state. The second prohibits funds to any UN organ that “grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
These laws are pretty clear. If UNESCO recognizes the Palestinians as a member state, then the Obama administration has no choice but to withhold funds for UNESCO. And as far as I can tell, there are no waivers to this requirement. As such, critics can blame the law or blame Obama for not trying to change it, but they cannot blame him for following the law.
Moving beyond the blame game, there is no doubt that defunding UNESCO is against US interests. UNESCO does far more than protect cultural sites. It hosts educational exchanges, disseminates scientific findings, supports intercultural dialogue, and promotes gender equality. It also raises awareness about the Holocaust, as Elise Labott notes. Moreover, defunding UNESCO sends the wrong message to the rest of the UN and our international partners. For those reasons, the State Department also emphasized today that “the US remains strongly committed to robust multilateral engagement across the UN system.”
The administration will have to rely on some creative thinking to both uphold its domestic legal obligations and its desire to remain an actively engaged leader in the UN system.
Luckily, the legislative restrictions themselves present a potential opportunity to help square the circle. Specifically, the law requires that prohibited funds “remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed or transferred to any other account […] to carry out the general purposes for which such funds were authorized.” In other words, US funds intended for UNESCO won’t be lost to the budgetary abyss. In fact, they can still do some good.
One option could involve asking other states to transfer funds away from other UN organs and into UNESCO. In return, the US could use our withdrawn UNESCO funds to make up for any gaps left behind in the other UN institutions. For example, France – which voted for Palestinian membership – could reallocate X million from UNDP into UNESCO, and the US would then fund UNDP X million using our UNESCO dollars. The US would be in compliance with domestic law and the funding levels at all UN institutions would remain untouched.
A second option and potentially complementary option would be to allocate the UNESCO funds for programs currently under the chopping block in Washington but still serve UNESCO’s greater purpose. For example, the Fulbright Program is facing additional cuts this year, despite its importance in promoting educational exchanges and foreign-language learning. This option won’t stop damaging UNESCO as an institution, but it would minimize the harm done to UNESCO’s overall mission.
I hope the administration is considering these and other potential work-arounds. However, such options will ultimately only serve as stop gap measures. The issue of Palestinian statehood will not go away, and the US will face more UNESCO-type dilemmas in the future. Even if we cannot change our policy on Palestinian statehood, we at the very least must preserve our flexibility in dealing with future challenges caused by Palestinian recognition bids. As a first step, Congress should repeal these two outdated and burdensome laws.
Yes, their repeal would cause an outcry amongst those who view anything remotely pro-Palestinian as anti-Israel. But these critics would best heed the musings of Yousef Munayyer: “Just wait until the US pulls out of the IAEA when Palestine applies. Iran will get a kick out of that.” As the inflexible law now stands, we’d have no other choice.