US shouldn’t forfeit influence within UN

As American businesses seek to protect their patents abroad, famine ravages the Horn of Africa and the Arab Awakening unfolds, we need more U.S. engagement at the United Nations, not less. Laws that restrict American participation in U.N. Specialized Agencies are bad for U.S. interests and national security. Congress must act immediately to fix this problem.

In October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) overwhelmingly admitted Palestine as a member. The following day, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations announced his government’s plans to join 16 additional U.N. Specialized Agencies. Although the Palestinian Authority’s statehood application did not pass the Security Council, it will likely pursue membership in other agencies as a way to continue its quest toward statehood.

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Two provisions tucked into the Foreign Relations Authorization acts of 1990 and 1994 (P.L. 101-246, P.L. 103-236) undermine U.S. interests and national security by prohibiting U.S. funding to U.N. agencies that grant Palestine membership. The rationale for these laws no longer exists, however. First, Congress passed the 1990 law when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations; the PLO was removed from the list in 1991. Second, the 1994 law passed when the idea of supporting an independent Palestinian state was premature. Now, a two-state solution is the official policy of the United States, Israel and many other countries. Therefore, these laws ignore significant developments from the last 20 years.

While the United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, former President George W. Bush recognized its ability to promote U.S. interests when we rejoined the organization in 2003. In a speech before the U. N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, President Bush said, “As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO. The organization has been reformed, and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.” Republican majorities in both the House and Senate approved President Bush’s $71 million request for UNESCO.

Now, however, our ability to promote U.S. interests through UNESCO is in jeopardy. Faced with a budget shortfall of 22 percent because of withheld U.S. contributions, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said it would be “impossible” for the agency to maintain its current activities. And what are these activities? They include core U.S. interests like literacy education for the Afghan National Police, supporting a free press in countries like Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, and promoting Holocaust education in the Middle East. These activities are especially important as the United States draws down its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and Middle Eastern countries teeter between chaos and democracy. There is no question that UNESCO supports U.S. interests by promoting regional stability and democratic values.

As the UNESCO vote on Oct. 31 proved, the 1990 and 1994 laws have failed to deter U.N. member states from recognizing Palestine. As required by U.S. law, the State Department immediately halted a scheduled payment of $60 million to UNESCO. If we fail to pay our dues for two years, we will lose our UNESCO leadership post entirely.

UNESCO is the tip of the iceberg, however. The Palestinian Authority will likely join other U.N. agencies, which would have far greater consequences for U.S. economic and security interests. The Palestinian Authority is not the problem here — our laws are, particularly because they don’t even include a waiver for the president if he determines that leaving U.N. agencies threatens our national security. Given the international community’s strong support for Palestinian statehood, the Palestinian Authority would easily be able to join other U.N. agencies, some of which confer membership automatically to countries with UNESCO membership.

Voluntarily diminishing our influence in U.N. agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization harms our interests and national security. Why would we risk a benefit to Iran by leaving the IAEA?

Regardless of one’s position on the Palestinian statehood bid, it is not in U.S. economic and national security interests to forfeit our influence in the U.N. agencies that fight nuclear proliferation control the spread of harmful diseases and protect American innovation.

We should realize that these laws penalize us, not the Palestinian Authority. If Congress does not amend them, we will be forced to withdraw from one U.N. agency after another, hurting only ourselves. This is no longer about Palestinian statehood — it’s about protecting our own interests and national security.

Ellison represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District and co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.