US, Israel lose their votes at UNESCO over Palestinian issue



UNESCO members vote for Palestinians to enter as a full member on Oct. 31, 2011 at the headquarters of the organization in Paris.


Miguel Medina

The United States and Israel have lost their votes at UNESCO, the United Nations cultural and scientific organization that promotes global education and protects important cultural sites around the world.

UNESCO’s constitution automatically cancels the ability to vote in its general assembly for any country that fails to pay its dues for two years.

The US State Department issued a statement saying it "intends to continue its engagement with UNESCO in every possible way" through meetings and debates. It also plans to "maintain our seat and vote as an elected member of the Executive Board until 2015."

In 2011, both the United States and Israel stopped paying their dues, following a UNESCO vote that admitted the Palestinians as full members. US officials said their hands were tied by a US law, passed in the 1990s, that does not allow the country to support any UN agencies that provide full membership to Palestinians.

The State Department said Obama has asked Congress to pass legislation allowing the US to pay its dues to UN agencies that admit Palestinians as members when it is in the "US national interest."

Previously, US contributions provided about $80 million, or 22 percent, of the agency’s annual budget.

UNESCO raised an emergency fund last year to make up for the shortfall, but it has not recovered completely. Some staff have been let go and the agency expects to cut more programs this year.

The diminished influence of the United States at UNESCO makes it less likely that an ancient civilization site in Poverty Point, La. and a group of 18th century Spanish missions in San Antonio will win World Heritage monument status.

Other countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have stepped up to fill in the financial and leadership gap left by the United States. The Chinese deputy education minister, for example, is now the head of UNESCO’s general conference.

“Twenty years ago the US was the only one, now there are other countries playing the soft power game,” Esther Brimmer, a former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, who now teaches at George Washington University, told The New York Times.