Global Policy Forum

The UNESCO Cuts: What’s Next on the US Chopping Block?

Following its admission to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Palestine is currently considering joining 16 other UN agencies, including the WIPO, IAEA, and WHO, increasing the potential for the US to further cut funding from the UN. According to US law, the US will not fund any UN agency which admits Palestine as a member state. The US’ defunding of UN agencies will not directly affect Palestine but will have a strong impact on US priorities abroad, for instance by limiting programs designed to monitor Iran & North Korea’s nuclear programs. This article outlines some of the programs that face US defunding if Palestine becomes a member.

By Colum Lynch

Turtle Bay

November 3, 2011

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has admitted the Palestinians as a full member, prompting the Obama administration to impose millions of dollars in congressionally mandated cuts. Meanwhile, the Palestinian U.N. envoy in Geneva, Ibrahim Khraishi, said the Palestinians were now studying the prospects of joining 16 other U.N. agencies, raising the possibility of further U.S. funding cuts.

Turtle Bay thought it would be a good time to look at which U.S. programs are safe and which are vulnerable to additional cuts as the Palestinians eye membership in other specialized U.N. agencies, including the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Last year, the U.S spent $7.6 billion on U.N. related activities. Most of that money -- more than $6 billion -- went to pay the U.N. secretariat's administrative costs, and to fund peacekeeping, humanitarian relief work, health care, and refugee services. None of those funds will be threatened by U.S. legislation, passed in the early 1990s, that prohibits the United States from funding U.N. agencies that admit Palestine as a member state. The reason is that these big-ticket items fall under the purview of the U.N. General Assembly or the U.N. Secretariat -- and the United States has the power to block any Palestinian quest for membership in those bodies.

Ironically, the $238 million contribution to the U.N. Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) -- which provides assistance to millions of Palestinians refuges settled throughout the Middle East, is likely to be untouched by the congressionally mandated cuts, because UNRWA is not a membership-based organization, and the Palestinians can't join it.

But nearly $2 billion in U.S. contributions could be held up. Indeed, if the Palestinians follow through on the plan to apply for membership in specialized U.N. agencies and other U.N. affiliates, the mandated U.S. funding cuts could do some serious damage to America's priorities abroad: programs designed to monitor Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, feed millions of poor people from Afghanistan to Somalia, set global air travel safety standards, and prevent the spread of avian flu and other infectious diseases.

Let's start with some of the programs that face potential U.S. spending cuts if the Palestinians make good on their commitment to expand their membership campaign. (The figures are based on a White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report detailing U.S. contributions to all U.N. agencies.)

- The United States contributed more than $84 million dollars to UNESCO in 2010. Best known for its World Heritage program, which designates vital international sites from the Statue of Liberty to the Egyptian pyramids, UNESCO also supports a tsunami early warning system in the Caribbean and Pacific, literacy programs in Afghanistan, media training in Tunisia and Egypt, according to Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director general. Say goodbye to this -- U.S. officials have already said the forthcoming checks won't be mailed.

- The United States last year contributed a whopping $1.5 billion in cash and food to the World Food Program (WFP), the second largest outlay after U.N. peacekeeping. The program, which has always been administered by a U.S. official and has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, is vulnerable to potential U.S. cuts. WFP's membership is split between U.N. member states and members of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). While the Palestinians can't overcome U.S. opposition to full membership at the United Nations, they can join FAO if they can secure a favorable vote by 2/3 of the membership. The Palestinians, however, will have to wait until June 2013, the next scheduled meeting of the FAO membership, to press their bid. But the Palestinian admission into UNESCO qualifies them to participate as an observer at FAO and WFP functions. If the Palestinians were accepted into FAO, they would then have to run again for a seat on the executive board of the World Food Program.

A cut-off of U.S. funding, which amounts to more than 36 percent of WFP's budget, would deal a severe blow to an agency that has helped to feed desperately poor communities from Haiti to Somalia, and provided the U.S. with extra leverage in its negotiations with countries like North Korea.

The WFP, which is managed by an executive director and an executive board consisting of 18 U.N. member states and 18 FAO member states, may make the novel legal case that Palestinian representation on the WFP executive board would not trigger the U.S. legislation, since there is no separate category of WFP member state, according to an official familiar with the matter.

WFP does not have its own separate category of member states. Countries are not "member states" of WFP, they are either member states of the U.N. or the FAO , the two parent bodies of WFP. 

- The United States contributed more than $161 million to WFP's affiliate, the FAO, including a $3.8 million payment in voluntary funds to support animal surveillance activities related to avian flu in Burma, China, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal. China's economy may be rocketing past the rest of the world, but the U.S. still pays for some programs there, including its $1.45 million contribution to an FAO program that is designed to "strengthen national capacities to rapidly detect and control potential outbreaks related to Avian influenza and other emerging threats."

- The United States contributed nearly $387 million to the World Health Organization, funding a range of programs designed to contain HIV/AIDS and Avian Flu, eradicate polio, and combat an array of other infectious diseases. Washington provided $146,000 for a polio eradication program in Djibouti, $2 million for a polio eradication program in Southern Sudan, and more than $4.4 million for similar programs in Nigeria and Tajikistan. These funds could all be cut if the Palestinians push for a vote in the Geneva-based health organization; to become members, they'll need only a simple majority.

- The United States contributed more than $185 million in 2010 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for halting the spread of nuclear weapons. The Vienna-based nuclear watchdog has played a central role over the years in monitoring the nuclear programs of countries like North Korea and Iran, and its assessments on those countries' lack of cooperation with U.N. inspectors have provided the United States, and its European allies, with a factual basis for imposing Security Council sanctions on both countries. The Palestinians would require a vote by a simple majority of IAEA members to join the organization, certainly an achievable goal.

- The United States contributed nearly $23 million to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to maintain international air safety, noise, and emission standards. One line item refers to an $18.5 million contribution to a program designed to "improve aviation safety and security around the world. The United States provides $245,000 to support a panel examining the development of international standards for airspace management. Membership in the ICAO requires a favorable vote by four-fifths of the members of the agency's governing assembly, presenting a higher hurdle than UNESCO, but not insurmountable.

- The United States also spends money on programs to promote labor rights, including an $83 million contribution to the International Labor Organization (ILO) to help nations around the world "implement modern labor standards." Last year, Washington contributed another $2 million to the ILO to "monitor labor rights in the apparel export sector in Nicaragua." The Palestinians would need a vote by two-thirds of ILO's members to join the club.

- The State Department regularly provides funding to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to protect U.S. companies from copyright piracy abroad. One line item included a $1 million contribution to WIPO to "provide systems for registering and protecting patents, trademarks, and industrial designs internationally." WIPO automatically extends membership to any member of another U.N. specialized agency, including UNESCO. The Palestinians are in if they want to be. 

The United Nations contributed more than $15 million to the World Meteorological Organization, including a $2 million payment to support "international cooperation on hurricane forecasting."The Palestinians will need a vote from two-thirds of the organization's members, make it a likely target for Palestinian admission.

The United States contributes $950,000 through the RAMSAR Convention on the protection of wetlands. Any member of a specialized U.N. agency, like UNESCO, can join this convention body, placing the U.N. contribution at risk for the wetlands.

Other U.N. specialized agencies that the Palestinians might consider include the International Fund for Agriculture Development(IFAD), which received more than $132 million last year from the United States, the International Telecommunications Union(ITU), which got more than $9 million, and the Universal Postal Union(UPU), which received more than $2.3 million. The Palestinians can gain admission to the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which accepts any member of a U.N. specialized agencies, including UNESCO. But it won't matter. The United States is not a member and doesn't fund UNIDO's activities.

Here's a list of the U.N.'s large programs that appear safe from a U.S. freeze.

- The United States contributed $2.6 billion, its largest outlay, to fund U.N. peacekeeping missions, and another $650 million to cover about 22 percent of the cost of the U.N.'s administrative budget. The United States pays more than 27 percent of the U.N.'s more than $8 billion annual budget for U.N. peacekeeping missions, including large operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Haiti, Liberia, and southern Lebanon.

*The State Department spent more than $35 million to fund scores of programs to fund U.N. anti-drug, anti piracy, human trafficking, and anti-corruption programs around the globe. One program, valued at $1.5 million, will support the relocation of the University of Juba Law School from Khartoum to the new capital of South Sudan. The money will fund construction of the law school, a library, and administrative offices. The U.S. also contributed $2.7 million to another U.N. drug program to complete the final renovation of the Hargeisa Prison for pirates in Somaliland, and to fund an assessment of the region's criminal justice system. The U.N. drug office, which is institutionally linked to the United Nations headquarters, does not have its own membership board, making it impossible for the Palestinians to join. Therefore, the U.S. funds are safe.

- The U.S. spent about $75 million for the renovation of U.N. headquarters, which comes out of the U.N.'s regular budget and are not subject to potential U.S. cuts.

- The U.S. contributed $38 million to investigate and prosecute war criminals in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. These costs also come of the U.N.'s regular budget and won't be affected by the Palestinians membership campaign.

- The United States provided $2.1 million to the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) to underwrite a transitional justice program that seeks to help Guatemalan's come to terms with a 36-year-long dirty war that cost the lives of more than 200,000 people. The money will lend "support to exhumations of past human rights abuses, recuperations of historical memory in Guatemala." UNDP's governing board is not open to non-U.N. members, and is therefore protected from congressionally mandated cuts related to the Palestinian membership campaign.

- The United States spent more than $706 million last year on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which provides assistances to more than 34 million people in 110 countries. UNHCR is one of the U.N. most respected agencies, and it has traditionally received broad bipartisan support in Washington. The refugee agency, which was created in 1950 by the U.N. General Assembly, does not accept non-U.N. member states into its governing board. These funds are safe.

- The United States contributed more than $255 million to the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), which was established in 1946 by the General Assembly to prevent the starvation of children in Europe after World War II. The agency, which is traditionally headed by an American, has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Washington. The organization promotes children's' health, education, and well being throughout the world. Membership in UNICEF's governing board is limited to U.N. member states, which bars the Palestinians from joining for the time being.

- The United States contributed $53,000 to the U.N. Environment Program to fund marine turtle conservation projects and another $320,000 to "reduce the global use and release of mercury." The Palestinians are now allowed to participate as a non-voting member of UNEP, but not as a full-fledged member. So, U.S. tax dollars will continue to protect the turtles.

U.S. money goes to a wide range of lesser-known activities, too: the defense of labor rights for Nicaragua textile workers, the creation of jobs in Jamaica, the promotion of entrepreneurs in Belarus, the development of digital voter registration technology in Zambia, and the upkeep of a memorial to America's war dead in South Korea. But the U.S. account makes it tough to say whether some of these programs will be on the chopping block or not.

- The State Department spent $7.1 million on a U.N. program "to help victims of torture cope with the after-effects of the trauma experienced, reclaim their dignity and become reintegrated into society." The OMB report does not identify a recipient agency, making it possible to determine whether funds could be subject to potential U.S. cuts.

- The United States contributed $1.3 million to an unidentified U.N. agency for the "protection of the world's shipping lanes."

- The State Department contributed $21,000 last year to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea for the "upkeep of the cemetery for Americans killed in the Korean War."The OMB doesn't identify the U.N. recipient of this contribution, making it impossible to say whether the funding could be cut or not. But don't imagine there will be much a constituency in Washington for ending funding for this program.


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