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U.S. Cuts UNESCO Funding After Palestine Membership Vote

October 31, 2011

The United States says it will immediately cut off funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in response to a vote granting Palestine membership.

The move is founded on U.S. laws dating from the 1990s that mandate that Washington avoid financing any UN agency that admits Palestine as a member state before a negotiated peace settlement with Israel.

It comes one month after Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas ignored numerous Western pleas and submitted a formal application for UN membership. That request should be debated by the Security Council on November 11, when the United States has vowed to use its veto power to block it.

"Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions, which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said within hours of the vote.

The United States' annual contribution of some $70 million accounts for nearly one-fourth of UNESCO's total budget.

Nuland said a $60 million payment scheduled for November will now be canceled.

A global development agency, UNESCO facilitates international cooperation in the areas of cultural heritage, science, and education. Its missions range from promoting literacy and gender equality to maintaining the UN's list of so-called world heritage sites.

The vote earlier in the day in Paris saw Palestine admitted as the 195th member state to the body by a 107-14 margin, with 52 abstentions.

Hungary's Katalin Bogyay, the president of the 36th General Conference of UNESCO, announced the result, which was greeted with cheers.

Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden were among the countries joining the United States in voting against Palestinian membership.

The State Department's Nuland said the vote was "regrettable," "premature," and a disservice to Middle East peace efforts.

"One-hundred and seven countries made their own decision on this vote," Nuland said. "We disagree with that vote and we disagree with the implications and we're concerned about the implications -- not only for the environment in which we're trying to get these parties back to the table, but also we're concerned about the implications for UNESCO, which is an organization that we support."

Israel will also cut off its payments to the organization.

Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Nimrod Barkan called the vote "a tragedy."

"UNESCO deals with science, not science fiction," Barkan said. "However, a large number of states -- though, most emphatically, less than two-thirds of the member states of this organization -- have adopted a science-fiction version of reality by admitting a nonexistent state to the science organization."

A statement by the Israeli Foreign Ministry said the move was "tantamount to a rejection of the international community's efforts to advance the peace process."

Palestinian officials hailed the vote, with President Abbas quoted by his spokesman as saying, "Accepting Palestine into UNESCO is a victory for [our] rights, for justice and for freedom."

A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority government, Ghassan Khatib, linked UNESCO membership bid to larger goals.

"I think the success of the Palestinians to achieve membership in UNESCO is important in terms of the Palestinian attempts to get recognition of Palestine as a state," Khatib said. "It's part of the build-up in the Palestinian efforts towards achieving international recognition."

The United States has maintained that peace can only result from negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Without U.S. funding, UNESCO will be pressed to avoid downsizing and layoffs.

The United States had previously boycotted the organization starting in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan but rejoined in 2003 under President George W. Bush.

written by Richard Solash based on RFE/RL and agency reports


Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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