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UNESCO Approves Palestine for Full Membership

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural and educational agency, bestowed full membership on the Palestinian state today, which could trigger a pullback of funding by the United States:

The US had threatened to withhold roughly $80m (£50m) in annual funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) if it approved Palestinian membership. The United States provides about 22% of Unesco’s funding.

Huge cheers went up in Unesco after delegates approved the membership by 107 votes to 14 with 52 abstentions. Eighty-one votes were needed for approval in a hall with 173 Unesco member delegations present.

“Long live Palestine!” shouted one delegate, in French, at the unusually tense and dramatic meeting of Unesco’s general conference.

This is separate from the bid for full membership to the United Nations, which Palestine petitioned for at the Security Council back in September. But the US has attempted the same leverage tactics against member states as they did at the UN, to virtually no avail. Now, they are threatening US funds toward UNESCO, because the country is bound by laws dating back to the mid-1990s to defund UNESCO after this action. The impact on America’s national security interests, says Timothy Wirth, former Democratic US Senator from Colorado and current President of the UN Foundation, are grave:

At issue are two laws from the early 1990s that prohibit the United States from providing financial contributions to any United Nations entity that admits Palestine as a member. The laws are strict: if Palestine is admitted to a UN agency, the United States must stop paying its membership dues. The restrictions provide no authority for the president to waive these prohibitions even if it is in the national interest to do so.

With a clear majority of countries around the world prepared to back Palestinian ambitions at the United Nations, the United States is poised to lose its leverage over several UN bodies that advance American interests and promote our ideals.

The damage to Americans of a forced withdrawal would not stop there. The first UN agency from which the United States could be pushed out is UNESCO, which admitted Palestine as a member today. To Americans, UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites. It also leads global efforts to bring clean water to the poor, promotes educational and curriculum building in the developing world, and manages a tsunami early warning system in the Pacific, among other important tasks. This critical work would be jeopardized if UNESCO’s top funder stops paying its bills.

Needless to say, the solution floated in Washington is not to change these laws so the US can continue to fund this important work, but to berate UNESCO for daring to listen to the overwhelming majority of its members and admit Palestine.

This may not stop here. Palestine could get admittance to several other UN offshoots, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization. The US would lose whatever voice it has in those organizations as a result, to the detriment of US foreign policy.

Of course, the ultimate solution is to work the negotiation process and reach a settlement in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But those talks are moribund, so now America will disengage from the world instead of moving forward.

UPDATE: And indeed, the US cuts off funding to UNESCO, per statutory law.

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David Dayen

David Dayen