UNESCO has suspended the voting rights of the United States and Israel, two years after both countries stopped paying dues to the United Nation’s cultural arm in protest over it granting full membership to the Palestinians.
The US decision to cancel its funding in October 2011 was blamed on US laws that prohibit funding to any UN agency that implies recognition of the Palestinians’ demands for their own state.
Israel also pulled its funding, objecting to what it called unilateral attempts by the Palestinians to gain recognition of statehood. Both countries missed a deadline yesterday to provide justification for non-payment and a plan to pay back missed dues, a Unesco source said. That automatically triggered suspension of their voting rights.
Asked for his reaction, the US ambassador to Unesco David Killion said Washington considers Unesco a “critical partner in creating a better future”.
“We intend to continue our engagement with Unesco in every possible way,” Mr Killion said.
Some fear that a weaker US presence will lead to growing anti-Israeli sentiment within Unesco, where Arab-led criticism of Israel for territorial reasons has long been an issue.
“We won’t be able to have the same clout,” said Phyllis Magrab, the Washington-based US national commissioner for Unesco. “In effect, we [now won’t] have a full tool box. We’re missing our hammer.”
Unesco, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, is responsible for designating World Heritage sites, promoting global education and supporting press freedom, among other tasks.
The withdrawal of US funding – which totalled about $240 million (£50m), or some 22 per cent of Unesco’s budget – has plunged it into a funding crisis and forced it to cut programmes.
Unesco made no comment. The list of countries whose voting rights are suspended will be announced at a Unesco meeting today, after which director-general Irina Bokova is expected to issue a statement.
The body’s 15-day general conference, which unites member state representatives every two years, began on Tuesday in Paris.
The US loss of voting rights comes as Washington tries to keep peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinians afloat.
Both parties have signalled poor progress in the talks, which were revived in July after a three-year hiatus but recently stalled over Israeli plans to continue building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
US secretary of state John Kerry has warned Israel that it could face a third Palestinian uprising if the talks fail. The Palestinians have so far failed in their bid to become a full member of the UN, but their Unesco membership is seen as a potential first step towards UN recognition of statehood.
The US has characterised Unesco’s move as a misguided attempt to bypass the two-decade-old peace process.