A shortsighted self-inflicted wound: US defunds UNESCO
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, John Bolton and the rest of the UN-hating set must be popping open bottles of champagne. Earlier this week, UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state, triggering a counterproductive US law passed in the 1990s that requires defunding any UN bodies that admit Palestine as a member state. This reactionary move does nothing to advance the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, and undermines US global engagement.
Timothy Wirth, President of the UN Foundation, describes the potential dire consequences of this move:
The damage would not stop there. The membership of UN agencies like the International Civil Aviation Organization, International Postal Union, and the International Telecommunications Union are also likely to admit Palestine. Each of these agencies performs tasks that American lawmakers probably take for granted. Thanks to the Universal Postal Union, the Chinese will deliver a package with American postage stamps on it and vice versa. Air traffic controllers in Dubai and Dulles speak the same language because of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Alas, under the 1990s laws, the USA will lose its voice at those organizations once they admit Palestine. Without the United States as a voting participant, perhaps French supplants English as common language of international aviation?
Next on the list of agencies from which the USA would be forced to withdraw is the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. In recent years the IAEA has been a critical part of American attempts to constrain the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. In 2006, the Bush administration successfully lobbied other members of the IAEA executive board to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council for sanctions. Should the United States stop paying membership dues to the IAEA–which it could be forced to do under current legislation if Palestine is admitted as a member — the United States would give up our vote on the executive board. It would literally lose a seat at the table during the next nuclear crisis.
Matt Lee, an AP reporter, grilled State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland about the UNESCO vote, pressing her for information on why it was so detrimental that it merited such a harsh response:
Lee asked Nuland about what exactly was so “detrimental” about Palestinian UNESCO membership — other than Israeli discontent and triggering the U.S. law to cut off funds — and she responded that it “could exacerbate the environment” in which the U.S. is trying to bring parties together for talks. Lee then dug for more specific consequences:
LEE: How exactly does it exacerbate the environment if it changes nothing on the ground, unlike say, construction of settlements? It changes nothing on the ground. It gives Palestine membership in UNESCO, which is a body that the U.S. didn’t — was so unconcerned about for many years that it just wasn’t even a member.
NULAND: Well, I think you know that this Administration is committed to UNESCO, rejoined UNESCO, wants to see UNESCO’s work go forward –
LEE: Well, actually, it was the last Administration that rejoined UNESCO, not this one. But the – I need to have some kind of clarity on how this undermines the peace process other than the fact that it upsets Israel.
NULAND: Again, we are trying to get both of these parties back to the table.That’s what we’ve been doing all along… So, in that context, we have been trying to improve the relationship between these parties, improve the environment between them, and we are concerned that we exacerbate tensions with this, and it makes it harder to get the parties back to the table.
These answers hardly offer satisfactory justification for the US to withdraw funds from critical international organizations in response to the vote. Unfortunately, thus far there does not seem to be an appetite in Congress to change this counterproductive law [emphasis mine]:
“This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this,” he said. “What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That’s what’s at risk here. That would be a great loss.”
Graham said he believes it is in the U.S. interest to actively participate in these organizations. And yet, he plans to introduce a Senate resolution to formally withdraw U.S. membership in UNESCO — a more serious action than simply cutting off funds. He intends to do the same for any other international organizations the Palestinians succeed in joining.
Graham also said that Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.
“I don’t think that’s in our near-term or long-term interest, but that’s what’s going to happen, that’s where this thing is headed,” Graham said.
The administration isn’t doing any better; a Senate Republican staffer told The Cable, “The administration is behaving just like a deer frozen in the headlights on this.”
As J Street pointed out in an email message to supporters, “it’s like telling someone you’re so mad at them that you’re going to punch yourself in the nose.” If the International Atomic Energy Agency reduces the number of nuclear inspectors deployed around the world, will Congress be comforted by the thought that they showed the UN who’s boss? More than a hundred countries, many of which surely want to see a peaceful resolution in the Middle East, felt that admitting Palestine to UNESCO was a sound decision. The US is demonstrating how it is out of step with the international community, and will further damage its standing by losing influence in UN bodies. Congress needs to step in and heal this self-inflicted wound before the entire world pays the price.