Congress returned to work with the January 15th funding deadline looming as an ominous cloud over the Capitol. The American people may have therefore expected their elected representatives to tackle this challenge by focusing on priority programs. Yet, some were intent on extending the holiday season, looking at the funding bill as a Christmas tree to fill with million-dollar ornaments in the form of wasteful spending.
One of these was the effort to, not only restore U.S. contributions to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquartered in Paris, France, but to also pay back dues. To allow hundreds of millions of US dollars to flow to UNESCO’s coffers, Congress would need to change current law prohibiting funding to the United Nations or any of its specialized agencies recognizing a Palestinian state.
This cut-off was triggered in October 2011 when, as Palestinian terrorists launched rockets from Gaza against Israel, UNESCO admitted “Palestine” as a state. A $60 million payment due to this UN agency was immediately halted but the Administration chose for the U.S. to remain a member thereby keeping the U.S. on the hook for its 22% of the agency’s operating budget.
The expectation was that members of the House and Senate appropriations and authorizing committees would capitulate to pressure from the Administration and the UN by granting a waiver of the law on the grounds that, continuing to pour money into UNESCO would advance U.S. interests.
One oft cited foreign policy argument was that U.S. participation in, and funding of, UNESCO was a necessary component of our strategy concerning Israeli-Palestinian issues. Similar claims were made by the Administration to circumvent Congressional objections and provide economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, as well as funding for Gaza/West Bank programs including cash-for-work and tourism promotion.
After the mandated UNESCO cut-off took effect, UN advocates within and outside the U.S. Government intensified lobbying efforts to restore the American funding pipeline. They would have prevailed in December 2011 and in 2012 were it not for the commitment of key House Members.
UNESCO continued on its misguided path. Undeterred by the carnage being perpetrated by the Assad regime against innocent civilians, the agency proceeded to keep Syria on its executive board and to elect Syria twice to its human rights committee. Meanwhile, it adopted six resolutions condemning Israel in October 2013, once again displaying the UN’s animus against the Jewish state.
The Senate proposal, however, demanded nothing from UNESCO and would have waived statutory requirements to allow taxpayer monies for this global cultural entity to administer the World Heritage program. The justification used was that this approach would encourage the designation of buildings, parks, and other landmarks in U.S. Congressional districts as World Heritage Sites.
Ultimately, it seems Senate proponents understood the gravity of sacrificing long-standing U.S. foreign policy to gain a UN seal of approval for a park featuring prehistoric earthworks, or an old mission, or other local site. The value of these is self-evident. No need to pay millions of dollars for outside affirmation.
The spending bill approved by the House of Representatives yesterday and to be voted on by the Senate in coming days keeps current law intact and provides no funding for UNESCO. It does, however, allocate hundreds of millions in U.S. assessed and voluntary contributions to other UN agencies and bodies.
The battle was won but the war is far from over.
In a session of the PLO Acting Committee held in Ramallah this week, the PLO leadership (with the Palestinian Authority) reportedly instructed its so-called Diplomatic Committee to prepare a plan of action for membership in new UN bodies and to sign international conventions. This, as the United Nations begins its “International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” today, Thursday, January 13th.
Gross human rights violators sit on the UN Human Rights Council and serial proliferators North Korea and Iran have been chosen in recent years to preside over the UN’s Conference on Disarmament.
Congress must recall Thomas Jefferson’s warning: “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and exercise rigorous oversight over how American taxpayer funds are being used throughout the UN system and whether such expenditures truly advance U.S. interests. If UN agencies continue to stray from their core mission, Congress should stop the money pipeline or render American support only to worthwhile agencies.
Yleem D.S. Poblete, Ph.D. served for close to two decades on the staff of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, including as its Chief of Staff. During her Hill tenure, Dr. Poblete was involved in multiple legislative efforts to reform the United Nations system.