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The United States and UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works to promote global peace and security, innovation, and intercultural dialogue through an array of programs in five major areas: education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, and communication and information.

In late October 2011, UNESCO’s General Conference voted to recognize the Palestinian Authority as a full member state. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress passed two laws stating that any UN agency that grants full membership as a state to the Palestinians would automatically lose U.S. funding. Following the vote to recognize the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. was forced to immediately cut off funding to the organization.

Before this funding cut-off went into effect, the U.S. assessment for UNESCO funded 22 percent of the organization’s total regular budget. However, the U.S. had not yet paid our 2011 dues, totaling $80 million. We have not paid our 2012 dues either, and we are now $160 million in arrears—two consecutive years of non-payment. Unfortunately, the strong leadership the U.S. has provided to the organization in recent years is now diminished. Further, if the U.S. does not pay its dues this year, the U.S. will lose its vote at the next biennial UNESCO General Conference in October 2013.

This will have consequences for the United States. UNESCO serves a number of important functions that help advance broader U.S. national security interests.

Promoting U.S. National Security

Literacy Programs for Afghan Police: In Afghanistan, more than 70% of police officers are unable to read or write. This lack of basic literacy skills can lead to misunderstandings and aggravate tensions between the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the population at large, posing a challenge to U.S. nation-building efforts in the war-scarred country. To remedy this situation, UNESCO launched a program to provide literacy training for 3,000 members of the ANP. The program also aims to develop 20 master trainers charged with continuing these efforts after the program formally ends. These types of initiatives are indispensable to larger U.S. efforts to build well-trained, professional, and effective security forces for Afghanistan, a key objective for our country as we prepare to wind down our military presence there.

This project is funded by Japan and managed by UNESCO’s Afghanistan Field office, with the support of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, both of which are financed through UNESCO’s regular budget, of which the U.S. contributes 22 percent.

Promoting Civic Values and Preventing Extremism Among Iraqi Youth: UNESCO’s field office in Iraq manages an educational program to instill young Iraqis with civic values and critical life skills with a curriculum that emphasizes the notion of a unifying national identity, rather than sectarian fissures, and modern values such as women’s rights.

Funded by the European Commission and partnerships with other UN agencies, this program ismanaged by UNESCO’s Iraq Field office, which is financed by the regular UNESCO budget, of which the U.S. pays 22 percent.    Loss of U.S. funding will weaken the ability of the Field Office to attract and manage important contributions such as this one.

Tsunami Early Warning Systems: UNESCO’s Tsunami Program, managed by its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), works to reduce the loss of lives and livelihoods that can be caused by tsunamis worldwide. In March 2011, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center released an alarm following the deadly earthquake in Japan, saving tens of thousands of lives in that country. The system also warned communities on the West Coast of the United States about the possibility of a tsunami.

In 2011, the U.S. contributed $949,002 in extra-budgetary funding for the IOC, of which $23,200 was directed to the Tsunami Program in the Pacific and another $139,000 was targeted for the Caribbean. The U.S. contributes 22% of the IOC’s regular annual budget of approximately $4.8M.

Transparency and Accountability of the Judiciary in Iraq: UNESCO is working to promote public confidence in the Iraqi judiciary through training and support to the Public Information Office of Iraq’s Higher Judicial Council, improving their accessibility to the media. Trust in the judiciary system helps deter people from seeking justice through extra- judicial means, increasing the stability of the Iraqi government and promoting democracy and transparency after the departure of U.S. forces.

The State Department has committed to fund this project, but the release of funds has been suspended following the Palestine vote.

Efforts to Combat Drought & Famine in the Horn of Africa: Given the status of the Horn of Africa as a base and transit area for terrorist organizations, combating the chronic water insecurity that contributes to radicalization and anarchy in the region is very much in the U.S. interest. The first phase of this proposed UNESCO/U.S. Geological Survey joint project involves an emergency humanitarian phase designed to help approximately 950,000 refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia access water. The second phase is designed to improve overall management of the concerned water basins.

USAID was interested in funding the program, but the U.S. funding cutoff means the U.S. can no longer support this critical project through UNESCO to draw on its unique hydrological expertise.

Consequences to Cutting U.S. Funding to UNESCO

While the U.S. has not yet lost its vote, there have already been several serious consequences to withholding dues in recent months:

Church of the Nativity: The U.S. was recently unsuccessful in blocking the designation of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage “Site in Danger,” a move pushed by the Palestinians in order to fast-track the church application for inclusion in the list on an emergency basis. The panel of experts that advises the World Heritage Committee determined that although the church needed renovation and conservation, it did not appear to be in imminent danger and should not qualify for emergency status. Ultimately, the U.S. was one vote shy of blocking this politicized move by the Palestinians, though it is highly likely the U.S. would have been able to muster the needed extra vote had it still been UNESCO’s top funder.

Syria: Though the U.S. successfully passed a resolution condemning Syria’s actions at the last Executive Board meeting, it was unable to remove them from the human rights subcommittee. Despite support from some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, in condemning Syria’s actions during the ongoing civil war, the majority of the Arab countries at UNESCO did not want to be seen as promoting U.S. goals after the U.S. cut its funding in response to the “democratic vote” to add the Palestinians as a member of UNESCO.

U.S. participation in UNESCO is in our national interest as it directly supports programs around the world that impact the U.S. and our allies.