Congress returned to work with the Jan. 15 funding deadline looming as an ominous cloud over the Capitol. The American people may have, therefore, expected their elected representatives to tackle this challenge by focusing on priority programs. Yet, some members were intent on extending the holiday season, looking at the funding bill as a Christmas tree to fill with million-dollar ornaments in the form of wasteful spending.
One of these was the effort to not only restore U.S. contributions to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquartered in Paris, but to also pay back dues. To allow hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars to flow to UNESCO’s coffers, Congress would need to change current law prohibiting funding to the United Nations or any of its specialized agencies recognizing a Palestinian state.
This cut-off was triggered in October 2011 when, as Palestinian terrorists launched rockets from Gaza against Israel, UNESCO admitted “Palestine” as a state. The administration immediately halted a $60 million payment due to this U.N. agency, but it chose for the United States to remain a member, thereby keeping the nation on the hook for 22 percent of the agency’s operating budget — money that is in arrears.
The expectation was that members of the House and Senate appropriations and authorizing committees would capitulate to pressure from the administration and the U.N. by granting a waiver of the law on the grounds that continued financial support for UNESCO would advance U.S. interests. One oft-cited foreign policy argument was that U.S. participation in and funding of UNESCO was a necessary component of our strategy on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Similar claims were made by the administration to circumvent congressional objections and provide economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, as well as funding for Gaza-West Bank programs, including cash-for-work and tourism promotion.
After the mandated UNESCO cut-off took effect, U.N. advocates within and outside the U.S. government intensified lobbying efforts to restore the American funding pipeline. They would have prevailed in December 2011 and in 2012 were it not for the commitment of key House members.
UNESCO continued on its misguided path. Undeterred by the carnage being perpetrated by the Bashar Assad regime against innocent Syrian civilians, the agency proceeded to keep Syria on its executive board and to elect Syria twice to its human rights committee. Meanwhile, it adopted six resolutions condemning Israel in October 2013, once again displaying the U.N.’s animus against the Jewish state.
The Senate proposal, however, demanded nothing from UNESCO and would have waived statutory requirements to allow taxpayer monies for this global cultural entity to administer the World Heritage program. The justification used was that this approach would encourage the designation of buildings, parks and other landmarks in U.S. congressional districts as World Heritage Sites.
Ultimately, it seems Senate proponents understood the inadvisability of sacrificing long-standing U.S. foreign policy to gain a U.N. seal of approval for a park featuring prehistoric earthworks, an old mission or other local site. The value of these is self-evident. There is no need to pay millions of dollars for outside affirmation.
The spending bill signed into law keeps current law intact and provides no funding for UNESCO. It does, however, allocate hundreds of millions in assessed and voluntary contributions to other U.N. agencies and bodies.
The battle was won but the war is far from over.
As the spending bill was being voted on, the PLO Acting Committee was meeting in Ramallah. The PLO leadership (with the Palestinian Authority) reportedly instructed its so-called Diplomatic Committee to prepare a plan of action for membership in new U.N. bodies and to sign international conventions.
Gross human rights violators sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council and serial proliferators North Korea and Iran have been chosen in recent years to preside over the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament.
Congress must recall Thomas Jefferson’s warning: “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and exercise rigorous oversight over how American taxpayer funds are being used throughout the U.N. system, and whether such expenditures truly advance U.S. interests. If U.N. agencies continue to stray from their core mission, Congress should stop the money pipeline and render American support only to worthwhile entities.
Yleem D.S. Poblete is a former chief of staff of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.