UNESCO's terrible mistake

Humanitarian organization's decision to admit Palestine as member cost it crucial US funding.

Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
Palestinian UNESCO reps 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
A report issued by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova reveals the extent of the crisis facing UNESCO following its decision to admit “Palestine” as its 195th member state, a move which is contrary to the terms of UNESCO’s own constitution and customary international law.
Prior to the vote to admit Palestine on October 31, 2011 – Bokova issued delegates with this warning:
Let me be frank. As Director General it is my responsibility to say that I am concerned by the potential challenges that may arise to the universality and financial stability of the Organization. I’m worried we may confront a situation that could erode UNESCO as a universal platform for dialogue. I’m worried for the stability of its budget. It is well known that funding from our largest contributor the United States may be jeopardized. I believe it’s the responsibility of all of us to make sure that UNESCO does not suffer as a result.
Her clearly articulated message was ignored at the time, but has since proved to be correct.
The US indeed suspended its payments to UNESCO, denying the organization of about $260 million for the period 2011-2013, 22 percent of UNESCO’s entire budget. The suspension of these payments is mandated by US law which condemns unilateral action taken by any international organization to recognize Palestine outside the negotiations being conducted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
There appears to be little prospect of that law being circumvented – especially in an election year. Bokova was then forced to amend a report for the 2012-2013 global humanitarian aid programs in order to accommodate the sudden loss of US revenue for the 58 members of UNESCO’s Executive Committee. 
The report does not make for pretty reading. Bokova had to make an unprecedented call on member states to pay their annual subscriptions in advance so that the organization could implement the budgeted programs from January 1 with minimum disruption.   At the same time, Bokova tried to sort out the financial mess that was generated as a result of the Palestine vote.
Her plea was not in vain. The total of advance payments received at December 31, 2011, amounted to $19.9 million, compared to $2.2 million at the end of 2009. As of January 31, 2012, $88.4 million of the 2012 assessed contributions was received, compared to $21 million in January 2010.
However, Bokova is merely postponing the much harder decision of either reducing the programs or abandoning them altogether before UNESCO’s bank accounts run dry. Her action in setting up an emergency donor fund has been poorly supported, with just $42 million being pledged in the three months since its formation – only $32,000 of which was donated by the public, public institutions and private endowments.
Overall, the total unpaid contributions by member states amounts to a staggering $98.7 million as of December 31, 2011 – twice the level at end of 2009. UNESCO was also forced to reduce its total Working Capital Fund (WCF) of $30 million to finance its programs as a result of its parlous financial position.The report indicates there will be deep cuts in programs designed to help improve the lives of millions of people worldwide – as well as many more staff retrenchments.
In some areas such as HIV and AIDs, only limited program funds will be allocated to be used as “seed funding.” Bokova hopes the shortfall will be supplemented from extra-budgetary resources.
Bokova’s report received a frosty reception at the International Staff Association of UNESCO, which Bokova described as a “staff confidence crisis.” The Association concluded that the report:
Lists haphazardly reductions in administrative costs and the postponement or cancellation of program activities. Elements considered to be key priorities in the construction of a modern personnel management system for the Organization have been penalized inter alia through the suspension of the merit-based promotion scheme, investments in human resources management computer tools and training programs and the cancellation of gender priority evaluation activities and training for Administrative Officers.
Yet had UNESCO spent a measly $100,000 seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of its decision to admit Palestine, this crisis might have been averted. No suggested recommendation for this course of action appears in Bokova’s Report.
An opinion declaring Palestine’s admission to be unconstitutional would lead to an immediate inflow of American funds and an end to UNESCO’s current woes. Clearly UNESCO prefers to play politics over maintaining its universality and financial stability.
While you go figure, spare a thought for the millions of people around the world who are fast becoming victims of UNESCO's refusal to reverse its decision on Palestine.
The writer is an Australian lawyer and a Foundation Member of the International Analyst Network.