American influence in culture, science and education around the world took a high-profile blow when the US automatically lost voting rights at UNESCO by missing a deadline to repay its debt to the world’s cultural agency.
The US has not paid its dues to the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in three years in protest to the decision by world governments to make Palestine a UNESCO member in 2011. Israel suspended its dues at the same time in support of the US and also lost voting rights on Friday.
Under UNESCO rules, the US and Israel had until Friday morning to resume funding or explain themselves, or to automatically lose their vote. A UNESCO official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said nothing was received from either country.
The suspension of US contributions — which account for US$80 million a year, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s overall budget — brought the agency to the brink of a financial crisis and forced it to end or scale back US-led initiatives such as Holocaust education and tsunami research over the past two years.
Many in Washington are now worried that the US is on track to becoming a toothless UNESCO member with a weakened voice in international programs such as fighting extremism through education and promoting gender equality and press freedoms.
Some fear that a weaker US presence will lead to growing anti-Israeli sentiment within UNESCO, where Arab-led criticism of Israel for territorial reasons has long been an issue.
“We won’t be able to have the same clout,” Washington-based US national commissioner for UNESCO Phyllis Magrab said. “In effect, we [now won’t] have a full toolbox. We’re missing our hammer.”
The UNESCO tension has prompted new criticism of US laws that force an automatic funding cutoff for any UN agency with Palestine as a member. The official list of countries that lose their votes was expected to be read aloud yesterday before the entire UNESCO general conference.
In a speech on Friday night, David Killion, the outgoing US ambassador to UNESCO, told delegates that top US officials, including US President Barack Obama, “have been working tirelessly to seek a legislative remedy that would allow the United States to resume paying our contributions to UNESCO. Regrettably, that remedy has not yet been achieved.”
However, in defense of the US suspension of funds, Killion reminded member nations that the US had articulated its “principled position” regarding Palestine long before the controversial 2011 decision.
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, said in an interview that his country supports the US decision, “objecting to the politicization of UNESCO, or any international organization, with the accession of a non-existing country like Palestine.”
In today’s world, UNESCO tackles foreign policy issues such as access to clean water, teaches girls to read, works to eradicate poverty, promotes freedom of expression and gives people creative thinking skills to resist violent extremism.
Some US legislators also are concerned.
“The United States must not voluntarily forfeit its leadership in the world community,” Republican Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, said in an e-mail.
With efforts by Obama to get the money restored having failed or stalled, Ellison plans to introduce legislation in Congress to overturn what he calls the “antiquated” laws that automatically halted the flow of funds to the agency from November 2011.
The Obama administration has proposed language to amend the legislation, but it remains on the table amid recent US budget setbacks.
For some it is a question of sooner rather than later, with the US racking up arrears to UNESCO of about US$220,000 a day, which it will have to pay back if it ever wants to fill the empty chair and get back the vote.
“Paying off three years is manageable, but it indeed becomes much more difficult if you allow many years to pass and the bill gets larger and larger and larger,” former US assistant secretary of state for international organizations Esther Brimmer said.
The Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, said other countries are beginning to make up for the US shortfall.
“Is this in the interest of the US, to be replaced?” he asked.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova lamented the changes that are not only seeing the US silenced within her organization, but also bringing UNESCO financially to its knees.
“I regret to say that I’m seeing, in these last two years ... a declining American influence and American involvement,” Bokova said in an interview.
Bokova said she accepts political reality and will find ways for UNESCO to continue its work, despite next year’s budget that is down by an estimated US$150 million.