Rice: UNESCO funding reduction hurts US

US envoy to UN urges Congress to resume funding of int'l body, which was cut off after UNESCO recognized Palestinians as member state.

Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
WASHINGTON – The US envoy to the UN urged Congress Tuesday to allow America to resume the funding to UNESCO cut off once the body recognized the Palestinians as a member state in October.
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice argued that the funding reduction – some 22 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget – was hurting American interests and doing little to stem the Palestinians’ efforts for wider recognition at the UN.
But members of the US House foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, before whom Rice was testifying, pushed back against her appeals and indicated little support for providing the Obama administration the waiver it seeks. The funding cutoff was triggered by a law from the 1990s requiring the US to defund any UN body that recognized the Palestinians as a full member state.
“If you’re the Palestinians, you get membership and you get a diminished US role in an organization where otherwise we would defend our interests, defend Israel and do other things we think are important,” Rice told the committee. “The message to the Palestinians was not, ‘Stop your march to the UN agencies.’” She said that Qatar and China have helped fill the funding gap, steering a committee dedicated to education, science and culture toward their national interests.
She also pointed to the fact that Israel has continued to fund special UNESCO programs it values, such as Holocaust education.
In addition, Rice said it was wrong to penalize the UN agency when it was the member states who voted in favor of Palestinian recognition.
“We don’t need to punish the entity and we don’t need to punish ourselves,” Rice said. “And we have talked about ways to make sure there are consequences for the Palestinians.”
But the subcommittee chair, Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger, suggested that the funding block was achieving its aim.
“Many members of Congress believe that cutting off these funds is the reason the PA stopped further recognition efforts,” she said in her opening statement.
Indeed, several members took issue with Rice’s position during the hearing.
“We discredit ourselves when we don’t follow up on our commitments,” maintained Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz- Balart, referring to the law on the books requiring that the US stop funding UNESCO.
Democratic members have also been reluctant to change the UNESCO provision, and one Democratic committee aide said the current political climate all but ruled out the legal change sought by the Obama administration.
“I don’t think members of Congress are going to repeal that law, certainly not in an election year,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The entire subcommittee signed a letter warning UNESCO that it risked losing US contributions if the group recognized the Palestinians as a member state ahead of its decision to do so.
The letter was initiated by New Jersey Democrat Rep. Steve Rothman, who told The Jerusalem Post after the hearing that he was open to reviewing a compromise proposal by the administration to allow key UNESCO programs to get money.
“The most important steps for us would be to make sure that the Palestinians suffer consequences for their actions, that the member states who voted in favor of the Palestinians’ request for statehood recognition suffer consequences, but that whichever programs at UNESCO serve the national security interests of the United States are not damaged,” he said.
But he placed the onus on the administration to figure out a way to do that without running up against the current law.
“I want to hear from the administration how they can square the circle in that regard – if they can,” he said.
Granger also told the Post that she would consider proposals brought forward by the administration, but rejected “a waiver that just knocks us out of it.” She emphasized, “For us to still have some control over it is very important.”