UNITED NATIONS – The United States lost its voting rights at a United Nations organization it co-founded in 1945, after missing Friday’s deadline to repay dues it halted after UNESCO accepted Palestine as a full member.
President Obama’s administration stopped providing $80 million a year to the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in October 2011 because of U.S. laws that bar funding for any U.N. agency that gives Palestinians the same status as a nation.
The U.S. had until Friday morning to keep its vote on matters before UNESCO’s general membership by paying back dues or explaining itself, according to the agency’s constitution.
Suspension of U.S. funding, which accounted for about 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget, pushed the U.N. cultural body into a financial crisis, forcing it to cut or scale back programs. UNESCO’s budget fell to $507 million for 2014-2015 from $653 million for 2012-2013.
Without changes in U.S. laws, Palestinian membership in other U.N. organizations could hinder the international body’s education, clean water and literacy programs.
“I deeply regret this,” Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general, said in an interview Friday at the agency’s headquarters here. “This is not some kind of punishment on behalf of UNESCO for nonpayment. It’s just our rules.
“We’ve lost our biggest contributor; this has a bearing on all our programs,” she said, adding that it was not just a matter of financing.
She said the agency would miss the voice of the United States on issues such as freedom of expression and girls’ education.
“The U.S. is putting itself into a corner and we need to get out of that corner,” said Esther Brimmer, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organizations. Brimmer, now a professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, added: “If Palestinians were to improve their status in another U.N. organization, the U.S. will be forced to withhold its funds.”
A 1990 law prohibits funding “the U.N. or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”
A second law passed four years later, bars “voluntary or assessed contribution to any affiliated organization of the U.N. which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
UNESCO is the only U.N. organization in which Palestinians have the voting rights accorded to member states. Last year, the Palestinians were upgraded to status as an “observer state” of the U.N., allowing them to join other U.N. agencies and sign treaties without the right to vote on resolutions.
The lost vote “is not a loss of U.S. membership” in UNESCO, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in an emailed statement. “The U.S. intends to continue its engagement with UNESCO in every possible way.”
The U.S. can attend meetings, participate in debates and will continue to have a vote on the agency’s executive board, where it will remain a member until 2015, Psaki said.