from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Palestine and UNESCO: We’ve Only Just Begun

November 3, 2011

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Palestinian Foreign Minister al-Malki and Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO Sanbar attend a press conference during the 36th session of UNESCO's General Conference in Paris (Benoit Tessier/Courtesy Reuters).

This week’s vote by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to admit Palestine has negative repercussions for U.S. foreign and national security policy that extend far beyond that obscure UN agency. Thwarted in its bid to secure Security Council recognition of its status as a fully-fledged UN member state, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has chosen a more circuitous route to statehood: gaining entry into individual UN agencies, one entity at a time. Thanks to current provisions in U.S. federal law, the Palestinian strategy poses a dilemma for the Obama administration: either to remove budget support from each agency the PA joins, or seek immediate legislative relief from the U.S. Congress. Here’s to hoping the White House does the latter, to avoid crippling more important international organizations—and U.S. influence within them.

The source of the predicament is a two-decade old provision in the U.S. Code (22 USC 287e as amended by PL 101-246) pertaining to “Membership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in United Nations Agencies.” That legislation prohibits the State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from funding “any specialized agency” of the United Nations “which accords the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) the same standing as member states.” Significantly, the legislation does not include  any waiver permitting the president to bypass the law on national security grounds.

This lack of executive branch flexibility gives the Obama administration no leeway in weighing their desire to punish Palestinian overreaching with the potential costs to U.S. national interests. In the case of UNESCO, the State Department immediately announced that it was suspending its annual support for the organization—approximately 22% of the agency’s total budget. This is a pity. The Paris-based agency performs an array of functions in U.S. interests well beyond its best-known role of designating and protecting World Heritage Sites. In the Pacific, the organization manages a tsunami early warning system. And in Afghanistan, as my CFR colleague Rob Danin points out, “UNESCO is working to bolster the literacy of the Afghan National Police and is leading the country’s largest education program reaching some six hundred thousand Afghans.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland promises that the United States "will maintain its membership in and commitment to UNESCO". But the credibility of U.S. leadership will decline. Refusing to pay dues to UNESCO—which are assessed rather than voluntary contributions—is a violation of U.S. treaty obligations. Unless the United States revises its position—and repays any accumulated arrears—the United States stands to lose its seat on the body within two years.

UNESCO, moreover, is only the beginning. Thanks to reciprocity arrangements, participation in UNESCO translates into automatic membership in other UN agencies, among these the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the standing UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Palestinian membership will compel the United States to stop contributing to all such organizations of which it is a member. In the case of WIPO, the implications of abrupt U.S. withdrawal could be disastrous.  As UN Foundation President Tim Wirth observes, this “lesser-known UN agency…serves American businesses and brands by setting global standards for copyrights and adjudicating cross-border patent disputes. In the last year alone, dozens of major American companies brought cases before WIPO—the American Automobile Association, Apple, the North Face, Costco and Facebook to name just a few.” At a time of rampant intellectual property theft, continued U.S. membership in WIPO is critical to ensure that the agency continues to advance U.S. national and business interests.

Reportedly, the Palestinians have their sights set on at least sixteen UN agencies, ranging from the World Health Organization to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Postal Union and the International Telecommunications Union.  In some cases entry will require formal votes. But the overwhelming support for the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) UNESCO bid (which passed by a vote of 107-14, with 52 abstentions) suggests that this hurdle will be a mere formality. Under existing legislation, the United States would be forced to end funding for critical functional agencies like these, which help combat global disease, ensure airline safety, and provide myriad other benefits. The Palestinians may even be able to secure membership in the most important international financial institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, which have already set a precedent by admitting the disputed territory of Kosovo.

Most worrisome is a potential PA effort to join the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s main watchdog against nuclear proliferation. Given the growing dangers posed by the spread of nuclear technology, unsecured fissile material, growing interest in nuclear energy, and the arms programs of rogue states like Iran and North Korea, the United States cannot afford to cut off its budgetary support to the IAEA.

The stakes for U.S. national security are very high. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a leading Republican internationalist, predicts, “This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-UN relationship. This could be the tipping point…What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That’s what’s at risk here. That would be a great loss.”

The dilemma is clear. Given overwhelming support from UN member states, the Palestinians will inevitably gain membership into whatever agency they apply to. So how can the United States escape the trap it has set itself? The only real solution would be for the Obama administration to secure from Congress a national security exemption giving the president limited authority to waive application of the law, in cases where denying funding to an agency which admits Palestine would jeopardize important U.S. national interests. Already, such waivers exist allowing the United States to provide aid to the PA—and to permit the PLO to maintain an office in Washington.  Such flexibility would give the White House leeway to make a presidential determination in each potential case, allowing it to fine-tune a policy response rather than cutting off its nose to spite its face every time the PA secures a multilateral victory. The question, of course, is whether a pro-Israeli U.S. Congress can hold its own nose and alter its own, self-defeating legislation.

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