In October, the United States, Israel, and Canada all elected to pull funding from the United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization – UNESCO – after the organization voted to allow Palestine to become a member of the group. The issue was back in the news this week after The Daily Show featured a lengthy exposé on the topic, raising questions about the priorities of American lawmakers and diplomats.
UNESCO is a UN organization that, according to its manifesto, “works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures, and peoples.” It does this largely by promoting education and gender equality, especially in Africa and the Middle East. UNESCO is also noted for maintaining “world heritage sites”, which are deemed to be of special cultural significance. After the vote to include Palestine, the organization has 195 full members that can benefit from funding and programs provided by UNESCO.
UNESCO funds education and training for people of all ages in the countries in which it operates. One of its goals is to ensure that women are granted access to education. It aims to make clean water more accessible and sustainable. Of particular interest to the United States are UNESCO programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, which may face cuts in the wake of loss of funding. In Iraq, programs seek to increase access to fresh water sources. In Afghanistan, UNESCO is involved in literacy training with special programs directed at Afghani police forces.
Until late 2011, almost a quarter of UNESCO’s funding came from the United States. The U.S. contributed $70 million to the effort annually. A further three percent of the organization’s budget was provided by Israel, though Israel has also cut funding in the wake of Palestinian membership. Canada stood by the U.S. and cut its $10 million dollar contribution to UNESCO. UNESCO is working to replace the loss of those funds, but it is likely that offices will be closed and staff will be cut in the wake of the cutoff. These cutbacks are likely to have serious consequences for those who depend on UNESCO funding for education and other services.
Though the UNESCO vote to include Palestine was decisive – 107 in favor, 14 against, 52 abstentions – the United States was firmly against the inclusion of Palestine, asserting that including Palestine in the organization could threaten Israel and harm peace talks between the two nations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the United States’ position clear from the outset, suggesting that UNESCO “think again” before allowing Palestine to join. Clinton has said that including Palestine in UN organizations before it is granted full membership in the UN itself would be unwise. By voting to include Palestine, Unesco triggered a reaction rooted in U.S. law that, according to the New York Times “mandates a full cutoff of American financing to any United Nations agency that accepts Palestine as a full member.”
The funding cuts were supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States, and the laws that forced the funding cut have been in place since the early 1990s. The United States has pushed back against Palestine’s efforts to be included in the United Nations, and some have claimed that Palestine being involved in UN organizations could prove a threat to Israel and to peace efforts in the region. The United States’ strong commitment to Israel has played a large part in its reaction to Palestine’s involvement in the UN.
The US has long made it clear that its relationship with Israel is a top priority, but cutting funding to a UN program is an overreaction. By contributing such a large portion of UNESCO’s budget, the United States was signaling that it approved of the organization’s goals of education and gender equality. The fact that UNESCO would be promoting those ends in Palestine does not make them any less honorable or less crucial.
The idea that allowing Palestine to participate in UN programs would harm Israel takes a narrow view of diplomacy. It is hard to imagine peace talks being more difficult to accomplish where there is greater investment in education, science, and culture. And even if Palestine’s UNESCO membership does not close the gap towards peace in the Middle East, the immense loss of funding that UNESCO programs have suffered since October could have serious detrimental effects. When the United States prioritizes Israel’s desires over the education funding for an entire region, those priorities need to be reevaluated.