As expected, “Palestine” succeeded in gaining membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on October 31 with a vote of 107 in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions. The result was a foregone conclusion after UNESCO’s 58-member executive board voted 40–4 with 14 abstentions earlier this month to let the membership bid proceed. Reportedly, a number of delegations laughed when Israel voted no on membership for Palestine, and loud applause erupted in the chamber following the final vote. It is unlikely, however, that this good cheer is shared by the UNESCO leadership.

After UNESCO’s executive board voted, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the United States might be legally required to withhold funding for UNESCO if the organization grants Palestine membership. Current U.S. law contains two restrictions that prohibit United States funds to international organizations that admit Palestine as a member state. U.S. Code Title 22, Section 287e states:

  • “No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.” This was adopted as Public Law 101-246 in 1990.
  • “The United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution: (1) 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, or (2) to the United Nations, if the United Nations grants full membership as a state in the United Nations to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, during any period in which such membership is effective.” This was adopted as Public Law 103-236 in 1994.

The language in these provisions is clear and provides for no discretion on the part of the Obama Administration. Despite Secretary Clinton’s warning, UNESCO member states decided to admit Palestine and forgo U.S. financial contributions. In response, the U.S. State Department announced, “Today’s vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as member is regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive just and lasing [sic]peace in the Middle East. The United States will refrain from making contributions to UNESCO.”

The U.S. was UNESCO’s largest contributor and gave the organization more than $80 million in 2010. The funding suspension will likely compel significant budgetary adjustments in UNESCO programs and staff. It is important to note, however, that U.S. law does not require the U.S. to withdraw from UNESCO. Moreover, the UNESCO constitution does not provide for expulsion of members for failure to pay their contributions. Instead, the document states that member states lose their vote in the UNESCO General Conference “if the total amount of contributions due from it exceeds the total amount of contributions payable by it for the current year and the immediately preceding calendar year.” Withholding contributions would not prevent the U.S. from maintaining UNESCO membership, attending meetings or otherwise participating in discussions, making its opinions known to other UNESCO member states, or casting a vote in the Executive Board as long as it is on that body, or casting a vote in the General Conference until its voting privileges are suspended. Thus, America will still have a voice at UNESCO should it choose to use it.

Under the provisions for membership in their founding documents, Palestine would automatically gain membership in several 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)—if it chooses to seek it. The U.S. is not a member of UNIDO, but U.S. law will require suspension of funding for WIPO and UNCTAD if/when Palestine becomes a member of those organizations.

The quick announcement of the decision to withhold U.S. funding is welcome, because it removes any ambiguity about the consequences of UNESCO’s action. Hopefully, the other U.N. agencies approached by Palestine about membership will take note.