By Kerim Rached
As early as October 5, 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had urged the governing body of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) “to think again” before proceeding to hold a vote on the admission of Palestine as a member state to the organization. The basis of Secretary Clinton’s approach was the fact that the issue of Palestinian statehood had not yet come to a conclusion by way of a U.N. Security Council decision, which may happen as early as November 11, and that “the decision about status must be made in the United Nations and not in auxiliary groups that are subsidiary to the United Nations.” While addressing U.S. concerns over the precedent recognizing an entity in a U.N. subsidiary department before doing so in the U.N. Security Council could set for relevant international legal disputes in the future, Clinton also warned more explicitly that the administration is “certainly aware of strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition.”[i]
Following the members of UNESCO voting overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a full member on October 30, the Obama administration immediately cut all funding to the organization. Previously providing over twenty percent of UNESCO’s funding, it was due to pay $60 million in November. While Clinton’s stated concerns, especially those implying that this decision may establish an unsound international precedent for various other disputes, are principled and certainly have legal merit, the passing of the legislation which forced the U.S. to cut funding to UNESCO in the first place may have been disproportionately influenced by factors unrelated to U.S. interests abroad or even its current economic climate at home.
Essentially, the decision to cut funding to the institution being based on legislation which calls for these measures to be taken only in the very specific case of Palestine rather than any entity at all which pursues similar actions may ultimately serve to harm American interests in both the Middle East and the United Nations. Since the U.S. will be forced by circumstance to continue to cut funding for any U.N. department that upgrades the status of its Palestinian representation (which is generally limited to non-state observer status) for the sake of consistency in foreign policy, the Palestinian authorities will continue to pursue similar outcomes in other U.N. branches. This arguably short-sighted approach may unfortunately only serve to marginalize U.S. interests in both the United Nations and the broader Middle East peace process, which is frustratingly counter-productive at a time when the Arab Spring is presenting the U.S. with so many opportunities to improve its standing in the region at a grassroots level. It may also jeopardize other regional powers’ willingness to heed the Obama administration’s advice when it comes to making political concessions to normalize their respective relations with Israel.
A significant portion of the strong legislative prohibition that Secretary Clinton was referring to earlier, apart from two other laws passed in the 1990s, can be found in the recent United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act (H.R. 2829) sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The bill, introduced in late August and passed in September 2011, places quite a few conditions on U.S. funding to the U.N. One of its more noteworthy points of financial relevance “Directs the President to use U.S. influence at the United Nations (U.N.) on a wide variety of issues, including to shift the funding mechanism for the regular budget of the U.N. from an assessed to a voluntary basis.” While some portions of the resolution make economic sense at a time when U.S. taxpayers and federal auditors are calling for more budgetary and fiscal discipline by the government, it makes around eighty-some references to Palestine and explicitly directs the Secretary of State to withhold U.S. contributions from any U.N. entity that recognizes any Palestinian administrative organization or governing entity prior to the achievement of a final peace agreement with Israel. While some more generic House resolutions, such as H.R. 1765 passed in November last year, had called upon the administration to diplomatically oppose any unilateral declarations of a Palestinian state, Section 403 of the more recent H.R. 2829 provided specific measures to implement in case a U.N. body were to upgrade the status of the Palestinian mission relevant to it. Numerous other sections are dedicated to taking certain positions on issues which concern Israeli relations with certain U.N. branches or with Palestinian authorities.
While the wisdom in cutting funding to UNESCO alone may be debatable, it is the lack of principled fiscal or legal considerations taken into mind when the decision was made rather than the decision itself which birthed the question currently at hand of whether the Obama administration has forced itself to choose between its long-time Middle Eastern ally or its recently-won international credibility in light of its handling of the Arab Spring uprisings. From another angle, domestic political ambitions may have also played a part in the administration’s hard line against the U.N. department when the approaching 2012 presidential election is taken into consideration. Naturally, due to the timing of the decision and the legislation upon which it was based, it is unfortunately difficult to market it in a way that can persuade international public opinion, particularly in the Middle East which is turning a new leaf, that factors other than partisan interests in the regional conflict were involved in taking it. Furthermore, cutting funding to other U.N. agencies which may possibly admit Palestine as a full member following this precedent such as the International Atomic Agency or the World Intellectual Property Organization can have potentially negative consequences for the current U.S. position in regard to both its security and economic concerns abroad.
At this juncture, a certain degree of damage control may be warranted. This reasoning behind the strategy of cutting funding to U.N. departments based solely on the purpose of isolating a Palestinian political entity, the advocates of which have never cited fiscal discipline and budgetary restraints as factors, is unsustainable and actually serves more to isolate the U.S. and endanger its various long-term international interests. It seems that both the U.N. and U.S. administration have set precedents—the former in regard to admitting entities as full members to relevant bodies before they are recognized as states by the Security Council, and the latter in isolating itself from any institutions, no matter how significant, that upgrade the status of Palestine—without the prior development of any coherent formula to remedy the situation and do not even seem to have taken their own interests beyond the first day or so of the recent episode into account.
Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ros-Lehtinen released a statement following the decision of the UNESCO Executive Board emphasizing that “Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the UN, and should be used to stand up for our interests.”[ii] This statement only highlights the irony in the strategy of gradually disabling this leverage in an organization which the Chairman apparently recognizes as an institution in which it is possible to stand up for U.S. interests. In order to maintain some level of participation, and therefore leverage, it is expected that the Obama administration will find or develop other channels or mechanisms through which it can cooperate with UNESCO and other U.N. branches which may see similar outcomes in the future, as the Palestinian authorities will certainly seek to build on the outcome of their recent initiative.