Published February 16, 2012
Less than four months after the U.S. cut off funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for granting full membership to the Palestinian Authority, the State Department has quietly put nearly $79 million in its 2013 budget in hopes that Congress will grant a legal waiver allowing UNESCO funding to be restored.
That permission is unlikely to be granted soon, and is already opposed by one of the more influential members of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
“Resuming U.S. funding would give a green light for other U.N. bodies to follow in UNESCO’s footsteps and support the Palestinian statehood push,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, declared yesterday, in the wake of the State Department move.
It “sends a disastrous message that the U.S. will fund U.N. bodies no matter what irresponsible decisions they make.”
The UNESCO funding was cut off automatically under U.S. legislation dating back to the ‘90s, which mandated the spending freeze for any grant of full membership to Palestine by a U.N. agency before an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. The logic behind the measure was that anything giving the Palestinian Authority such a boost in status would work against the peace process rather than for it.
Currently, only an explicit waiver of the law can free the funding once the line has been crossed, as UNESCO did last October by a 107-14 vote of its membership, despite strenuous U.S. lobbying to prevent the move.
Support for UNESCO is part of the Obama administration’s policy of overall support for the U.N., which has included such moves as joining the controversial U.N. Human Rights Council, which currently includes major human rights violators such as China and Cuba among its members.
The policy still includes UNESCO, as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides made clear at a press briefing Monday, where he acknowledged the earmarking of the funds.
“UNESCO does a lot of enormously good work,” Nides declared, and we’d like to make sure that we have a contribution commensurate with their work.” The $79 million would cover the U.S.’s normal 22 percent of UNESCO’s regular budget.
“We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver, and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver,” Nides said.
Ros-Lehtinen’s view, on the other hand, is that “any effort to walk back this funding cutoff will pave the way for the Palestinian leadership’s unilateral statehood scheme to drive on.
Whether all U.S. legislators will agree with the State Department’s assessment of Paris-based UNESCO’s value may also be debatable. The U.S. only restored its own membership in the U.N. body in 2003, after a nearly 20-year absence. That was caused initially, the U.S. said, by UNESCO’s "excessive politicization, long-term lack of budgetary restraint, and poor management." Britain quit at the same time, but returned in 1997.
Nowadays, the Obama administration apparently has few problems with the organization, which says its mission is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.”
Other countries, however, find UNESCO’s usefulness more problematic. It was rated last year as among the worst of international agencies in terms of “value for money” by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United Kingdom’s equivalent of USAID.
The British aid agency berated UNESCO for “long-lasting historic underperformance and rated it as “unsatisfactory” in its organizational strengths, though the review had a few kind words for the agency’s top management, led by Director General Irina Bokova.
But when it came to UNESCO’s actual mission, the review said, “UNESCO’s significant under-performance in leadership means it is rarely critical in education and development.”