UNESCO Commission Ponders Palestine

Posted Friday, December 16, 2011 - 12:12
The US National Commission for UNESCO meets in Washington, D.C., November 28, 2011.

On November 28, 85 members of the US National Commission for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) met in Washington, D.C. I attended the meeting, because I was appointed to the commission in 2011 by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton following nomination by the American Library Association through its International Relations Committee.

The US National Commission serves as a federal advisory committee through the Department of State. The commission is comprised of up to 100 members appointed by the Secretary of State with up to 60 representatives of nongovernment organizations, 10 US government officials, 15 representatives from state and local governments, and up to 15 individuals at large. In 2004, the United States, after a 20-year absence, rejoined as a member of UNESCO and then created a national advisory commission. Before 1984, ALA had been a member of the commission and in spring 2010 ALA again was invited to be a member.

There was lively discussion at the November meeting about a range of topics related to US engagement with UNESCO, especially US funding for the organization. On October 31, the State of Palestine gained initial approval of its bid for full membership in UNESCO as part of a broader campaign for recognition by the United Nations Security Council. This is a major concern, because full membership in UNESCO for Palestine would result in a legally mandated cutoff of all contributions, both dues and voluntary, from the United States.

After the October 31 vote, both the United States and Israel pulled the plug on monetary support to UNESCO, leaving the agency to struggle with $80 million less in funding for the rest of the year. Existing US law mandates the termination of money to the United Nations or any of its agencies if it grants “full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” More legislation along the same lines has been introduced. The United States contributes 22% of UNESCO’s budget, so if the US cuts off its funding permanently, the agency would be forced to reduce its program activities and lay off personnel.

At the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer spoke with the group about UNESCO’s alignment with US foreign policy, the positive benefits of multilateral engagement, and Secretary Clinton and President Obama’s continued commitment to remain part of all UN agencies, in particular UNESCO. David Killion, US Ambassador to UNESCO, informed the commission that he is working with other State Department officials to encourage Congress to amend the laws, which are not likely to be repealed. The dilemma is a practical one for the United States—how to continue participating if government funding dried up. The executive and legislative branches of government appear to be in disagreement.

As the end of the year approached, UNESCO continued to deal with the loss of funding. Science magazine published an article November 25 describing how the loss of US dollars may have an impact on scientific programs. The Associated Press has also run articles detailing how the loss of funding may affect UNESCO programs in education, social sciences, and the developing world. Musician Herbie Hancock, a UNESCO goodwill ambassador, wrote an op-ed piece about the issue in the December 2 Washington Post. The cessation of US funds to UNESCO will affect global programs in literacy, gender equality, clean water initiatives, and many others.

The UN is identifying which other of its agencies are likely to be approached by Palestine to petition for full membership. The next agency meeting where Palestine is expected to request membership is the World Intellectual Property Organization; other meetings on the calendar include the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the International Civil Aviation Organization. Following its current mandate, the US would be required to stop contributing dues to those important organizations as well. Solving such global issues as illiteracy and climate change requires the leaders and citizens of all countries to work together. The work of UNESCO and other UN agencies is needed during these critical times.

BARBARA J. FORD, ALA president in 1997–1998, is the director of the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs and Mortenson distinguished professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign library.