Global Policy Forum

Cutoff of U.S. Money Leads Unesco to Slash Programs and Seek Emergency Aid

The United States cut off its payment of dues to UNESCO in 2011 following a vote to give Palestine full membership, leaving $144 million missing from the agency’s budget.  With a big gap in revenue, UNESCO is scrambling to fill the gap with special voluntary contributions as well as cutting back on its programs which cover educational, scientific and cultural issues.  The US refusal to pay is a reminder of past disputes of this kind with the UN and its bodies, disputes involving heavy-handed efforts by Washington to get its way regardless of multilateral votes and the opinion of most member states.

By Steven Erlanger

New York Times
October 11, 2012

A year after the United States cut off its financing to Unesco, following a vote to make Palestine a full member, the organization remains engaged in a frantic effort to cut back programs, reduce costs and raise emergency money.

Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, has secured pledges of about $70 million since December to try to make up for the roughly $144 million in dues that the United States has withheld, she said in an interview here. Major contributors have included Saudi Arabia, with $20 million, and Norway, with $20 million over two years for crucial programs.

“But there is still an enormous shortfall,” Ms. Bokova said, calling the loss of American financing “a big blow to the organization” that was also costing the United States.

“The suspension has diminished the possibility of the United States to be involved together with Unesco,” the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, she said, limiting its ability “to outreach to the Muslim world, to talk of democracy building in Arab countries” and to promote programs for gender equality, freedom of expression and the protection of journalists.

“I think this is deplorable,” she said. “I think it is regrettable that the U.S. is not with us when we are upholding some important values, I believe, for the American people.”

The cutoff last October came as a shock, Ms. Bokova said, because the United States observed it immediately, withholding the $72 million in dues it would normally have paid at the end of the year, money that had already been allocated or spent. The United States’ share was 22 percent of the Unsesco budget, the proportion it pays throughout the United Nations system.

“They say don’t miss a good crisis to make reform, but I think it’s too good of a crisis,” Ms. Bokova said. When Unesco did not receive the American money late last year, it immediately used its working capital fund of $31 million for the budget, froze all programs, canceled any program in the pipeline, ended some programs, froze hiring, initiated a voluntary retirement plan, changed its travel rules, reduced translations, renegotiated contracts and limited the use of outside consultants.

“I can’t think of a single program that was not affected,” Ms. Bokova said.

The suspension of payments also took the Obama administration by surprise. Congress had passed two little-noticed laws in the early 1990s requiring an immediate cutoff of money to any United Nations agency that accepted Palestine as a member. Efforts by the American ambassador, David T. Killion, and the Obama administration to get the money restored have failed, and the issue has been put off until after the presidential election next month. If the financing is not restored, the next Unesco general assembly, in two years, can vote to suspend American membership.

In a statement on Oct. 8 to the Unesco executive board, Mr. Killion praised the organization’s efforts to promote freedom of expression, education for young women, the protection of journalists and the preservation of threatened cultural monuments in Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere.

“This is the beauty of Unesco: it uses the most basic building blocks of our civilization — education, science, culture and communication — and finds new ways to harness them in the service of peace,” Mr. Killion said. He added: “The United States remains a full and active member of the organization. President Obama is committed, and I am committed, to working with the U.S. Congress to seek a solution that would resolve the U.S. funding situation at Unesco and restore our ability to pay our dues.”

Ms. Bokova said in the interview that the cutoff had weakened American influence within Unesco, and some Unesco officials said Mr. Killion was in an awkward position. During a recent meeting of the executive board, Mr. Killion was skipped over by accident, diplomats said. He responded, “We’re still here!” Some in the room interpreted the comment as defensive. Others sympathetic to the American position said it was a statement that the United States “is not going anywhere and is still at the table as a defender of the ideals of the organization,” as one Western diplomat said.

Mr. Killion declined a request to respond on the record.

Congressional supporters of the cutoff have argued that it has sent an important message of support to Israel and a warning to the United Nations, and that it has helped persuade the Palestinians not to pursue full United Nations membership.

The Palestinians have used their membership to ask that certain sites, especially in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, be labeled heritage sites, requests that Unesco is studying. The cutoff was based on laws passed when the Palestine Liberation Organization was considered a terrorist organization and before it recognized Israel.

All agree that programs of value to the United States have been damaged, including education programs for young women and the Afghan police, early warning systems for tsunamis, and journalism and democracy training in North Africa, including Egypt, and Iraq. Even programs financed by other nations have been hurt, officials argue, because they operate out of offices and often use staff members paid for out of the general budget.

Besides Saudi Arabia and Norway, other donors have included China, Malaysia, South Korea, Algeria, Monaco and Chad. Individual Americans also sent Unesco checks after the cutoff, Ms. Bokova said, which helped encourage her to start the emergency appeal in December.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, argued in Congressional testimony in March that the cutoff was too blunt an instrument and that the laws mandating it “run counter to U.S. national security interests because they enable the Palestinians to determine whether the United States can continue to fund and lead in U.N. agencies that serve a wide range of important American interests.” She added, “A law that was intended to deter is failing to deter and then boomeranging on us.”


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