After the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted on October 31 to admit Palestine as a full member-state to the organization, the U.S. defunded UNESCO in accordance with a U.S. law from 1990.
The law restricts funding to any United Nations organization that accepts Palestine as a full member before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. With the Palestinian Authority (PA) actively seeking membership in U.N. organizations, the UNESCO rebuff could mark a U.S. trend in defunding other U.N. organizations. Blanket application of the law is of particular concern because it could lead the U.S. to defund organizations that directly contribute to U.S. and global security, especially the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
After failing to secure an expedient vote in the U.N. Security Council on Palestinian statehood, the PA applied for membership at UNESCO. Ibrahim Khraishi, a Palestinian official at the U.N. in Geneva, told the Associated Press, “[w]e are working on [membership], one by one” to gain greater recognition for an internationally recognized Palestinian state at the U.N.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said of the move: “Today’s vote at UNESCO to admit the Palestinian Authority is premature and undermines the international community’s shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
The next international organizations to vote on whether to admit Palestine as a full member could be the World Health Organization and IAEA.
If Palestine receives membership in the IAEA and the U.S. defunds the organization, the IAEA would be severely weakened. U.S. contributions account for a substantial portion of the IAEA’s funding, without which the IAEA would be forced to reduce the number of inspectors it sends worldwide to ensure that nuclear technology is not used for nuclear weapons. It would have to scale back efforts to improve the safety and security of nuclear energy plants after the crisis at Fukushima. Moreover, the U.S. would be diminishing the potency of a long-time bulwark against Iranian nuclear aspirations and depriving itself of information on Iran that is vital to national security.
Troubled, the National Security Network’s Heather Hurlburt wrote: “The IAEA is days away from presenting its latest report on Iran’s nuclear activities, and it would seem that Washington’s real priority ought to be garnering global support for a unified response [against Iran’s nuclear program]…”
Instead, the U.S. is weakening its global influence, jeopardizing its national security and guaranteeing its dismissal from the IAEA if it does not reverse the decision within two years. As Hurlburt wrote, “[it] makes you wonder whether Iran’s hard-liners aren’t secretly cheering every shadowboxing move we make.”
Though many Congressional supporters of the law admit that it could severely weaken U.N. organizations and U.S. national interests, they argue that organizations that grant membership to Palestine must be punished. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a leading Republican Senator, affirmed that “[t]his could be catastrophic for the U.S.-UN relationship…What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations…That would be a great loss.” Yet Sen. Graham is currently introducing legislation that would require the U.S. to withdraw from – not just defund –UNESCO and any international organization that recognizes Palestine as a member.
Republican and Democratic members of Congress seem unlikely to repeal or attempt to revise this law despite its failings. Congress can and should attempt to create a waiver, at the very least, that would allow the President to make exceptions for organizations such as the IAEA.
Otherwise, Congress seems to be cutting off its proverbial nose to spite U.S. national security.