Restoring UNESCO Funding Is a Matter of U.S. National Security

In 2011, the member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a member state.

by Derek Davison

In 2011, the member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a member state. In doing so, it triggered Section 414 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (FRAA), Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991, which reads as follows:

No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.

UNESCO’s admission of Palestine also triggered Section 410 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1994 and 1995, which requires the federal government to cut off funding to “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

Accordingly, the Obama administration immediately ceased payment of dues to UNESCO, with then-State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland saying that UNESCO’s admission of Palestine was “regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” This was no small matter, since America’s refusal to pay its dues has cost UNESCO a whopping 22 percent of its annual revenues, roughly $80 million per year, since 2011. To its credit, and in contrast with Nuland’s remarks in 2011, the Obama administration has more recently lobbied Congress to restore UNESCO funding, but with no success.

Neither Section 414 of the 1990-91 FRAA, which was written at a time when the PLO was seeking to boost its international standing by joining the World Health Organization (WHO), nor Section 410 of the 1994-95 FRAA, has ever been revisited in the 25 and 21 years, respectively, since they were passed. And neither includes a waiver provision that would empower a president to restore funding if circumstances should dictate. Yet circumstances do dictate that Congress and the Obama administration revisit these outdated and misguided policies, because underfunding UNESCO directly harms U.S. national security.

Defunding the Islamic State

One of the greatest strengths of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) comes from its considerable financial base, which it has been able to maintain in spite of falling oil prices through a diversified revenue stream that includes taxes, extortion, ransoms, and looting. Although the category of “looting” can encompass anything from clearing out the vaults of a captured bank to pillaging seized government offices, IS has increasingly benefitted from looting the many museums and archeological sites under its control and selling artifacts on the huge ($3 billion annually) global antiquities market. The wanton destruction that IS visits upon the historical sites it controls has attracted considerable attention, but IS only destroys what it can’t carry off and sell to black-market dealers.

Among other responsibilities, UNESCO’s 1945 constitution charges it and its member states with “assuring the conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science.” UNESCO aids its member states in this mission in several ways. Chief among them is through the creation of new international legal mechanisms to combat illegal trade in cultural property, like the 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.” That agreement states that “the import, export or transfer of ownership of cultural property effected contrary to the provisions adopted under this Convention by the States Parties thereto, shall be illicit” and requires UNESCO member states to establish national agencies to combat it.

UNESCO works with its member states to curtail the illicit trade in artifacts by raising public awareness of the problem and by developing legal mechanisms for tracking looted artifacts and settling disputes over their repatriation. But its most important programs are its capacity-building efforts, working with government officials to establish procedures for preventing and interdicting the black market trade in antiquities and then training national customs officers and law-enforcement personnel in implementing those procedures. UNESCO has been actively working to hinder the trade in antiquities looted from both Syria and Iraq, or, in other words, the antiquities trade that is currently helping to finance the Islamic State. But all of UNESCO’s work in this area has suffered considerably due to the loss of the substantial portion of its annual budget that the United States once provided.

UNESCO and Israel

In light of the benefit that IS derives from the illicit traffic in historical artifacts, Congress’s unwillingness to revisit those 1990 and 1994 laws and/or to restore full U.S. funding to UNESCO, the one international organization tasked with restricting and eliminating that traffic, makes absolutely no sense. In all honesty, cutting off funding to UNESCO made no sense back in 2011, before IS existed, as it served no purpose beyond placating the most extreme elements of the pro-Israel lobby. As analyst Phyllis Bennis writes:

There has rarely been a clearer example of domestic politics – in this case, influence of the pro-Israel lobbies – undermining national interests. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the most influential Republicans on foreign policy, said, “There’s a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this. What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That’s what’s at risk here. That would be a great loss.” But while claiming to recognize U.S. interests in the U.N. agencies, Graham still plans to introduce a Senate resolution calling for withdrawal from UNESCO – or any other U.N. agency recognizing Palestine on an equal basis. Graham is known as the most pro-U.N. among Republicans (admittedly a low bar). Yet as the Cable reported, “‘When it comes to the issue of Palestinian recognition, the politics just don’t allow any room for compromise,’ he said.”

UNESCO’s admission of Palestine has no practical impact on Israel or the state of the Israel-Palestine peace process, if one even exists anymore. Yet a pair of laws over two decades old is preventing the United States from funding an agency that could have a material impact on the Islamic State’s ability to finance its activities throughout the Islamic world. These out-of-date provisions threaten to cut the U.S. off from any other UN agency that admits Palestine in the future, from the WHO and the World Intellectual Property Organization to the International Atomic Energy Agency (which needs all the funding it can get in order to uphold its role in implementing the Iran nuclear deal). These provisions may have made sense in 1991 and 1994 (though even that is questionable), but they are downright harmful to U.S. national security needs in 2015, and they must be changed or eliminated.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.