This morning, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) approved the Palestinians’ bid for membership by a vote of 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions.
Legislation dating back more than 15 years stipulates a complete cutoff of American financing to any United Nations agency that accepts the Palestinians as a full member. Unesco — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — depends on the United States for 22 percent of its budget, about $70 million a year.
The Obama administration and Unesco had tried to avert the approval and diplomats had desperately negotiated with Congress, the Palestinians and other Unesco member states to find a resolution that would preserve the agency’s budget.
Americans for Peace Now’s Lara Friedman has a good piece detailing the U.S. legislation (pdf) that mandates the cutoff of U.S. funds to "the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states." As Friedman notes, "the chances of the 112th Congress amending 22 USC 287e to avoid a crisis at the UN are low to non-existent, despite the fact that cutting off funding to UNESCO and other UN agencies would clearly be detrimental to U.S. interests."
Politico’s Jonathan Allen also reports that the Palestinians’ successful UNESCO bid has "spurred a behind-the-scenes Beltway tussle over whether punishing UNESCO for granting rights to the Palestinians is worth the cost to other American interests, particularly those of major tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft."
The potential consequences to American businesses are important enough that the State Department has invited representatives of about two dozen technology and pharmaceutical companies and associations to participate in a discussion of the matter in Foggy Bottom Monday afternoon.
“Even as we approach this situation diplomatically, the Department of State and our U.S. Government partners would like to invite you to a discussion on the current state of play at UNESCO, as well as the ramifications of the Palestinian bid for membership,” reads a copy of the invitation obtained by POLITICO. Invitees include Apple, Google, Microsoft, the Motion Picture Association of America, PhRMA and the Recording Industry Association of America.
While they may have an interest in keeping UNESCO funded, it seems unlikely that major American businesses would pick a fight with Israel, which got a pre-vote boost from friendly lawmakers who want to make sure that funds are, indeed, cut off.
It’s worth remembering that the U.S. rejoined UNESCO in 2002, after an 18 year absence, as part of President George W. Bush’s effort to garner international support for the Iraq invasion. Bush made the surprise announcement that the U.S. would rejoin the organization at the top of a speech to the UN General Assembly that otherwise served as a bill of particulars against Saddam Hussein. It would be sadly ironic if U.S. domestic political realities now compelled our withdrawal from UNESCO at the same time as Iraqi domestic political realities have compelled our withdrawal from Iraq.
UPDATE: Senator Timothy Wirth, President of the UN Foundation, writing at UN Dispatch:
To Americans, UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites. It also leads global efforts to bring clean water to the poor, promotes educational and curriculum building in the developing world, and manages a tsunami early warning system in the Pacific, among other important tasks. This critical work would be jeopardized if UNESCO’s top funder stops paying its bills.
The immediate damage would not be limited to UNESCO. The moment Palestine is admitted to UNESCO it will also clear the path for its entry to the World Intellectual Property Organization. This is a lesser known UN agency that 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. If Palestine joins WIPO, the United States will have to pull out, limiting its ability to steer policies in ways that advance American economic interests and create jobs here at home.
The damage would not stop there. The membership of UN agencies like the International Civil Aviation Organization, International Postal Union, and the International Telecommunications Union are also likely to admit Palestine. Each of these agencies performs tasks that American lawmakers probably take for granted. [...]
As long as these laws remain on the books, Congress is setting the stage for America’s waning influence over international affairs. From businesses interests to non-governmental organizations who care about America’s influence at the UN, everyone must take a stand and urge Congress to give the President the flexible authority needed protect our national security and economic interests.