The United States is poised to involuntarily lose its vote on a U.N. panel for the first time in its history on Thursday after failing to pay its dues for three years in a row.
The Obama administration was forced to terminate funding to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011 after UNESCO members voted to admit Palestine as a member. Two U.S. laws from the 1990s bar funding for U.N. agencies that do so, and Congress has so far refused to grant the administration's request for a waiver.
The result of the terminated funding is that the U.S. will no longer have a vote on determining UNESCO priorities. The U.S. will also lose its ability to influence the decisions of the agency's subsidiary bodies, such as the one that grants tourism sites World Heritage status.
The White House and UNESCO advocates say the funding cut will harm U.S. interests. U.S. dues amount to about $80 million a year, or 22 percent of UNESCO's budget.
“We are concerned that the loss of our vote could leave a leadership vacuum that other governments that don’t share our commitment to democratic principles may try to fill,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Hill in an email. “The loss of U.S. contributions to UNESCO has already had an adverse effect on programs related to freedom of the press, Internet governance, Holocaust education, and world heritage issues.”
Hayden said Obama “remains committed” to getting Congress to give him the legal authority to pay U.S. dues. The president requested in his 2014 budget proposal that he be allowed to continue to pay dues to U.N. specialized agencies that admit the Palestinians as a member state if it is in the U.S. national interest.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a member of the House Democratic leadership, told The Hill he would soon be introducing legislation to “overturn” the funding restrictions.
“The United States should be a leader in UNESCO. The antiquated laws that required us to cut funding after UNESCO members democratically voted to admit Palestine are a bad idea,” he said in an email. “I call on my colleagues to overturn these laws by supporting legislation I plan to introduce soon. The United States must not voluntarily forfeit its leadership in the world community.”
The effort faces an uphill battle in Congress, where pro-Israel lawmakers argue that accepting Palestine as a state has undermined peace efforts in the Middle East. Israel also cut off funding to the Paris-based UNESCO after the 2011 vote, and is also expected to lose its vote on Thursday.
“The Obama Administration is wrong to continue to seek to restore funding to UNESCO,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in July after the agency decided to memorialize "The Life and Works of Ernesto Che Guevara." “The Administration must immediately end its push to send $225 million in American taxpayer money to UNESCO that would enable that organization to keep undermining our friend and ally, the democratic Jewish State of Israel, and would insult the memories of those who suffered under Che and continue to suffer under the Castro brothers.”
President Reagan pulled the United States out of UNESCO in 1984, citing its “hostility” to a “free market and a free press.” President George W. Bush rejoined the agency in 2002, arguing that it had been “reformed” and that America should “participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”
U.N. advocates have launched a full-court press to convince lawmakers that losing the vote is bad for America.
They point out that the agency funds literacy training for Afghan police and programs to keep Iraqi youth away from extremism. They also argue that dues-paying members are now almost certain to reject requests to give the Alamo and Louisiana's ancient Poverty Point settlement a special designation that could help draw tourists from around the world.
“This will have the effect of undermining American leadership and influence in the institution,” said Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign. “It is a sad day ultimately for American interests.”
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