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US withdrawal of UNESCO funds puzzling

By Katie Jenson     11/29/11 6:00pm

Palestine was accepted into the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a member state on Oct. 31, 2011. President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reacted first, condemning UNESCO's acceptance of Palestine. His policy provoked intense criticism from the Israeli people and the international community. As an act of solidarity with Israel, the United States withdrew its own funding from UNESCO, a sum of $80 million constituting 22 percent of UNESCO's total funding.

Does America love a controversial Israeli leader more than it loves UNESCO's core missions of global education, spreading democracy and ending extremist violence? Instead of answering this question with any number of legitimate political responses, our leaders insulted American democracy by misrepresenting American laws to their people and to the international community.

Certain American political leaders have condemned the Palestinians for the UNESCO crisis. One tasteless, anonymous State Department official, speaking to Foreign Policy magazine, went to such an extreme: "We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso, and the Palestinians have the remote control. They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It's 100 percent up to them." The notion that Palestine is to blame for America's actions is false and outrageous. We Americans are responsible for our own actions and we need to take actions we can be proud of. The whole suicide-vest image panders to crass sensationalism, not justice or reason.

Nor is UNESCO at fault. UNESCO is an international institution with praiseworthy goals. According to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, "U.S. funding helps UNESCO to develop and sustain free and competitive media in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt. UNESCO literacy programmes in areas of conflict give people the critical thinking skills and confidence they need to fight violent extremism. […] We are the U.N. agency with the mandate to protect freedom of expression. […] UNESCO is the only U.N. agency with a mandate to promote Holocaust Education worldwide. […] The announced withholding of U.S. dues owed for 2011 will immediately affect our ability to deliver programmes in critical areas: achieving universal education, supporting new democracies and fighting extremism."

America decided to withdraw American funds, and that's its own voluntary choice. Palestine and UNESCO both followed clear and legitimate procedures. American policymakers chose to support Netanyahu's controversial and unpopular policy.

While America supports Netanyahu, its withdrawal from UNESCO does not help Israel. How can America help Israeli policy by strangling aid money for developing "free and competitive media in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt?" How can America support Israel by dismantling literacy programs that "give people the critical thinking skills and confidence they need to fight violent extremism"? For that matter, how can we support Netanyahu's policy when it interferes with UNESCO's mission of promoting Holocaust education worldwide? Revoking 22 percent of UNESCO's budget means that UNESCO will be severely handicapped in its primary goals of "achieving universal education, supporting new democracies and fighting extremism." Foreign Policy magazine wrote that "the Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in … UNESCO." High-level policymakers actually seem to be scrambling in the opposite direction. Instead of taking the remarkably easy route of reading, obeying and enforcing the law, they are visibly searching for reasons to cancel on UNESCO. These anti-UNESCO policymakers reference two federal laws in a flawed attempt to justify their position. Examining those laws shows us that it's actually quite easy for America to continue as a member of UNESCO.

The first law cited by anti-UNESCO politicians is Public Law 101-246, Title IV. That law states, "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 [PLO] the same standing as member states." This law is actually irrelevant. Nobody is awarding the PLO any standing as a member state anywhere. The PLO is one of many organizations in Palestine. Palestine is not the PLO. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida acknowledged this fact when she voiced her support for pending legislation "to cut off funding to any U.N. entity that grants any upgraded status to ‘Palestine.'" As the law stands, America does not have to withdraw funding from UNESCO. The agency awarded standing as a member state to the internationally recognized state of Palestine, not the PLO. Pretending that this law forces America's withdrawal from UNESCO requires active falsification and misrepresentation of the law. In fact, Ros-Lehtinen says that the law must be changed in order for it to conflict with UNESCO. She wants the conflict, and I don't, but we agree as to what the law says now.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referenced the second, more relevant law when she explained her reason for America's withdrawal of UNESCO funding. This one is Public Law 103-236, "Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995." The section that interests policymakers right now is Section 410 in Title IV: "The United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution — (1) to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, or (2) to the United Nations, if the United Nations grants full membership as a state in the United Nations to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, during any period in which such membership is effective."

UNESCO granted "full membership as a state" to Palestine. Palestine is a state because it has a territory (though the borders of that territory haven't been decisively set since 1947), it is recognized as a state by 127 countries around the world and it certainly has a people. China recognized Palestinian statehood way back in 1988, in accordance with United Nations Resolution 181.

Even though America doesn't choose to recognize Palestine as a state, Palestine still has "internationally recognized attributes of statehood." The Foreign Relations Authorization Act doesn't ask that America recognize the state, but it does ask that the state be internationally recognized. UNESCO has granted full membership to an internationally recognized state. America is legally allowed, perhaps even obliged, to remain a member of UNESCO.

Political leaders: Please stop ignoring, falsifying or subverting American law to pretend that it affects our relations with UNESCO. Withdrawing because of Palestine's acceptance makes America look weak, ignorant and selfish. Find better rhetoric or make better policy.

Americans: We are the policymakers. Let's make decisions that make us proud.

Katie Jenson is a Lovett College senior.

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