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U.S. and Israel Lose UNESCO Voting Rights

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Putting quality education at the heart of development.

Since its creation in 1945, UNESCO’s mission has been to contribute to the building of peace, poverty eradication, lasting development and intercultural dialogue, with education as one of its principal activities to achieve this aim. The Organization is committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realization of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.

The folly of laws that force action upon the occurrence of some triggering event was on full display last week as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had to strip the United States of its voting rights because of nonpayment of dues that the government actually wanted to pay for the last two years but could not. The move is expected to cost at least 1,000 American jobs and undermine American influence around the world.

The U.S.-UNESCO conflict goes back to two laws passed by Congress in 1990 and 1994 that require the government to cease funding any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a full member. Nearly 20 years later, in 2011, the government was forced to stop all support for UNESCO after the organization voted to grant Palestine full membership. Despite reform efforts led by the Obama administration in 2011 and 2012, Congress refused to alter or amend the law.

Under UNESCO’s constitution, however, any nation that fails to pay dues for two years loses its vote in the UNESCO general assembly. That made UNESCO’s vote-stripping automatic, just as the U.S. “decision” to withhold dues was unavoidable under federal law. The U.S. had never before voluntarily given up its vote in a UN organization, according to diplomats.

“I deeply regret this,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova in an interview Friday at agency headquarters. “This is not some kind of punishment on behalf of Unesco for nonpayment. It’s just our rules.”

The U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, said at the ongoing UNESCO general conference in Paris that “UNESCO is a critical partner in creating a better future,” that the Obama administration was committed to restoring funding and that the U.S. would continue to participate as a nonvoting member in the meantime.


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