The Institute for Middle East Understanding
The UNESCO vote: Implications for the U.S.
IMEU, Nov 9, 2011
On October 31 the member nations of UNESCO voted 107-14 to admit Palestine to the organization. This move triggered the implementation of two pre-existing U.S. laws resulting in Washington cutting all funding for the organization. An immediate tranche of $60 million will not be delivered in November.
The UNESCO vote underscores a dilemma for U.S. policymakers. Palestinian officials say they are studying whether they can join 16 additional U.N. organizations. As a result, the U.S. could be forced to pull out of a number of important international organizations. A mass pullout from U.N. organizations would blunt U.S. diplomacy, adversely affect commerce, and end American participation in important world bodies.
According to a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990, the U.S. is obligated to withdraw its funding of any U.N. body which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the status of a member state.
A similar law passed in 1994 bars funding to a U.N. body which "grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."
Withdrawal of funding will likely be accompanied by a U.S. departure from the same U.N. agencies. Shortly after Palestine was voted in as a member state, the U.S. announced it was cutting its funding to UNESCO. The U.S. was responsible for 22 percent of UNESCO's annual budget, and the estimated withdrawal of funds is approximately $70 to $80 million per year.
UNESCO and the U.S.
Any withdrawal from UNESCO means the U.S. will be denied the benefits of membership in the organization. United Nations Foundation President and former Senator Timothy Wirth noted some benefits of U.S. membership in UNESCO, as well as the potential ramifications of its departure, such as to the tsunami warning system coordinated by UNESCO and to the U.S.'s literacy and educational efforts in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal could also have implications for U.S. programs overseas. In a letter to the Washington Post, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova cites UNESCO's work with the U.S. government and the U.S. private sector on human rights and educational initiatives from Tunisia and Egypt to Senegal and Tanzania, all of which will likely come to an end as the U.S. withdraws its funding from the U.N. organization.
Other U.N. agencies
Membership in UNESCO also grants Palestine membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), meaning that the U.S. may eventually be forced to withdraw from that organization, although Washington is reportedly unlikely to pull out quickly.
If the U.S. were to withdraw from WIPO, it could not use that body to internationally coordinate intellectual property rights protections. Among other things, this would make it more difficult to negotiate disputes over internet domain names (so-called "cyber-squatting" cases), which are important to American corporations and celebrities.
U.S. officials say, however, that UNESCO and WIPO could be just the beginning.
"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 Foreign Policy magazine's The Cable in early November.
Looming large on the list of U.N. organizations is the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the world institution working to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. The Vienna-based watchdog has played a key role in monitoring the nuclear programs of countries like Iran and North Korea. Palestine can gain membership in the IAEA through a simple majority vote.
According to Foreign Policy Magazine, depending on the strategic choices of the PLO, the U.S. could also be forced to cut ties with a host of other U.N. bodies, including the following: