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Monday, October 31, 2011

What will happen next with UNESCO?

As was obvious, UNESCO voted to admit a fictitious state:
Palestinians won a crucial vote to enter UNESCO as a full member on Monday, scoring a symbolic victory in their battle for statehood ahead of a similar vote at the UN General Assembly in New York.

"The general assembly decides to admit Palestine as a member of UNESCO," said the resolution adopted by 107 countries, with 14 voting against and 52 abstaining.

"This vote will help erase a tiny part of the injustice done to the Palestinian people," Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki told the assembly as the vote took place.

France, which had voiced serious doubts about the motion, approved it along with almost all Arab, African, Latin American and Asian nations, including China and India.

Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany voted against, while Japan and Britain abstained.

The United States and Israel are set now to withdraw their funding from the UN cultural body, while other UN agencies may have to debate the thorny issue.
So will US funds be stopped? HuffPo wrote up what looks like a comprehensive description of the legal issues involved.

Back in the earliest days of the peace process, when Congress was not entirely behind White House efforts related to Madrid (and subsequently Oslo), Congress passed a number of pieces of legislation intended to block normalization of Palestinian relations and activities in the international community. These included the following provision of law -- which notably does not include authority for the president to waive the requirements of the law, even in cases where vital U.S. national security interests are at stake.

22 USC 287e as amended by PL 101-246

MEMBERSHIP OF THE PALESTINE LIBERATION ORGANIZATION IN UNITED NATIONS
AGENCIES.

(a) PROHIBITION- No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.

(b) TRANSFER OR REPROGRAMMING- Funds subject to the prohibition contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes for which such funds were authorized.

A few observations are in order.

First, if UNESCO were to upgrade the PLO's status, but not to a point that gave the PLO equal status (in terms of rights/privileges) to member states, 22 USC 287e would not apply.

Second, even if UNESCO were to upgrade the PLO's status to the same as a member State, Congress is not simply the helpless victim of a law passed 21 years ago during a much different era. If members of 112th Congress wanted to, they could pass new legislation to amend this 22 USC 287e to avoid a cut-off in funds.

Third, the chances of the 112th Congress amending 22 USC 287e to avoid a crisis at the UN are low to non-existent, despite the fact that cutting off funding to UNESCO and other UN agencies would clearly be detrimental to U.S. interests.

...Fifth, even if UNESCO and the Palestinians were to come to some agreement on an upgrade of status short of a status comparable to a member state (thus avoiding sanctions under 22 USC 287e), Congress would likely act to strengthen U.S. law to ensure that even in such a case, U.S. sanctions would apply....

And finally, it should be emphasized that the U.S. funding for UNESCO that is at issue here includes funding from the United States' assessed contributions to the UN, as opposed to voluntary contributions to UNESCO. This means that if Congress and the White House determine that under the current (or some future) law, funding to UNESCO (or later on WIPO, or the IAEA) must be cut off due to that organization's treatment of the Palestinians, the U.S. will not only be removing itself from participation in a key international body, but will be in violation of its treaty obligations with respect to UN funding.
I cannot imagine that the White House will not find a way around this, but it is a stickier situation than it first appeared.

UPDATE: The US announced it stopped funding UNESCO:
The United States said on Monday it had stopped funding UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, following its vote to grant the Palestinians full membership.

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the United States had no choice but to halt funding because of longstanding US law, saying Washington would not make a planned $60 million transfer that was due in November. (Reuters)