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Will Congress’s defunding of the U.N. over Palestine hurt U.S. goals around the world?

Sometime this week, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) board will vote to admit Palestine as a state, a move that will automatically trigger a congressional cut off of more than $84 million in its annual contributions to the United Nations.

The Palestinians are expected to follow by seeking membership in three other U.N. organizations -- the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) -- that have reciprocation agreements that would allow UNESCO members in as full members. Consequently, the United States will be required to also cut funding to these agencies, jeopardizing funding to programs that protect international intellectual copy rights and promote trade in the developing world.

A congressional cut off of aid at UNESCO and other U.N. specialized agencies, however, would have no effect on many of the U.N.'s most high-profile operations, including billions of dollars spent on U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian relief work -- since any bid by the Palestinians to secure membership in the U.N. General Assembly would face a U.S. veto.

But the Palestinians have made it clear that they intend to seek membership in other international agencies affiliated with the United Nations, including the International Criminal Court, which receives no funding from the United States, and the World Health Organization, which has played a lead role in preventing the spread of deadly and debilitating diseases like polio, malaria, small pox and avian flu and HIV/AIDS. 

The Palestinians would also have a good shot at gaining entrance into several other U.N. specialized agencies, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which require simple majorities or two-thirds majorities votes by the agencies' member states  for membership. Ironically, the $238 million annual U.S. funding for the largest U.N. program in support of Palestinians, the U.N. Relief Works Agency, will not be directly affected by the UNESCO bid since it's not a U.N. member-based organization.

Fearing a gradual erosion of funding due to U.S. cuts, the U.N. Foundation, a U.N. advocacy group established by former CNN CEO Ted Turner, has launched a public campaign to raise public awareness about what they see as the risks to U.S. interests posed by two U.S. laws, passed back in 1991 and 1994, that prohibit funding to U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine as a state.

"I think the implications of this are really dangerous for the United Nations and the United States," said Timothy Wirth, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who heads the U.N. Foundation, noting that organizations like WIPO play a vital role in establishing international rules on intellectual property that protect the foreign operations of leaders in the movie, music, and pharmaceutical industry. "Is it really in the United States' interest to have the threat of our being thrown out of these important commercial agreements?" asked Wirth.

Peter Robinson, the head of the United States Council for International Business, the American affiliate of the International Chamber of Commerce, said the U.S. withdrawal from WIPO could hamper the United States ability to protect the existing interests of the U.S. music, film, and pharmaceutical industry, or to shape copyright rules on new green technologies developed to lessen the impact of climate change. But he also expressed concern that this will signal a deepening retreat from multilateral institutions.

"This sets up a tricky situation: you don't want to deny the rights of the Palestinians" he said. But "What concerns me is the cascading potential for U.S. withdrawal from U.N. agencies after UNESCO."

Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the concerns over defunding are overblown, and that it may provide a good opportunity to lessen the world's financial dependence on the United States. "WIPO presumably will conduct its business without the 22 percent of the money it gets from the United States," she told Turtle Bay. "Other countries can certainly ante up the money."

Pletka conceded that "it would be very unfortunate if we were required by law to do to deny money to the International Atomic Energy Agency." But the bottom line, she added, is "there are consequences to playing fast and loose, even in the international community. This is, at best, a supremely political quest by the Palestinians."

Brett Schaefer, a specialist on U.N. affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said he believes that the legislation, if enforced, will serve the purpose intended by Congress: to halt the Palestinians' campaign to join more U.N. agencies.

"Everybody was somewhat shocked and surprised by the fact that this legislation existed," he said, claiming that many member states that supported the Palestinian bid for membership in UNESCO were unaware of the ramifications. He said that other U.N. entities will think twice about following UNESCO's example. "This is going to be the pause button that Congress obviously intended it to be.

The prohibition on U.S. funding of U.N. agencies that recognize a Palestinian state was included in two pieces of legislation were signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and President Bill Clinton in 1994.

The 1990 law, passed under the leadership of then Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Claiborne Pell (D-RI), and then House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dante Fascell (D-FL), prohibits the appropriation of funds "for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member state."

In 1994, Congress expanded the ban under Pell and Fascell's successor, Lee Hamilton (D-IN), to bar 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."There are no waivers included in the laws.

The two laws were designed to halt a campaign by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (which secured recognition of Palestine in the late 1980s as an observer, non-member entity in the United Nations General Assembly), to extend its privileges at the United Nations and other international organizations.

But they have come at a time when appropriators in both houses are looking for cuts in foreign aid spending and when the Republican-controlled House, and especially the House Foreign Affairs Committee led by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), is keen on imposing cuts on the U.N. for considering the Palestinian statehood drive.

Fearing cuts, UNESCO's director general, Irena Bokova, appealed to the United States not to punish her organization for the decision of the agency's executive board, which is comprised of representatives of UNESCO member states.. In a letter to the Washington Post, she argued that UNESCO "supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests" from Afghanistan to Iraq, where "we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces."

"The issue of Palestinian membership should not be allowed to derail these initiatives, which go far beyond the politics of the Middle East," she added, citing UNESCO's work in tsunami early warning in the Caribbean and the Pacific. "None of this is in the interest of UNESCO. Nor do I believe it's in the interest of Americans."

Peter Yeo, the executive director of the Better World Fund, said the Obama administration is seeking a way to mitigate any possible damage caused by the old laws.

A spokesman at the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment on the matter.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

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