Last Friday, the United States had its voting rights with UNESCO revoked after not having paid dues to the organization for two years, an action that leaves a void of funding for the organization, as well as potentially impairing America’s influence in the arena of cultural politics and world heritage preservation.
The action wasn’t so much a surprise as an unfortunate endgame where, like a chess match where the moves are set, UNESCO and the US fell into a series of tensions that culminated with the suspension of voting rights. Back in 2011, Palestine was admitted to UNESCO with full membership, which rankled the United States and Israel. Due to laws passed in the 1990s that require the US to cut its funding to organizations that give membership to Palestine, all funding was stopped, and now two years later the UNESCO law that states that any country that doesn’t pay its dues for two years loses its voting rights has resulted in both the United States and Israel (which stopped paying dues at the same time) having no UNESCO vote.
Yet while it has something of a slow motion car wreck to it with the respective vehicles flung on their collision paths, it didn’t have to be this way. There was an effort from the Obama administration to have UNESCO funding approved, and they’re now aiming to get approval to start its dues again, but considering what happened with the shutdown it’s unlikely that the budget of the cultural organization will be a near priority.
So what does this mean for the United States? For one, it may be harder to get American sites the kind of international preservation and conservation attention that UNESCO World Heritage listings grant. Currently the tentative list for the United States includes Civil Rights movement sites in Alabama, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings around the country, Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, Poverty Point in Louisiana with earthen mounds that date to 1700 BCE to 1100 BCE near bank of the Mississippi River, and the San Antonio Franciscan Missions with 18th century structures in San Antonio, Texas. Listing could create jobs and increased support for these cultural sites, which could now be harder to attain.
As Susan Rice, White House National Security Advisor, lambasted on Twitter: “Shameful that US has lost its vote at #UNESCO. Congress needs to fix this. Current law doesn’t punish the Palestinians; it handicaps the US.”
But more significantly, UNESCO itself may have more trouble with its existing programs, which don’t just focus on culture, but also education, science, and peaceful collaboration between countries, as the dues of the United States (around $70 million a year according to the New York Times) make up about 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. Last year an emergency fund was established from member countries, but it’s unclear how UNESCO will function going forward.
The U.S. Department of State declared this in a statement issued last week:
“We note a loss of vote in the General Conference is not a loss of U.S. membership. The United States intends to continue its engagement with UNESCO in every possible way – we can attend meetings and participate in debate, and we will maintain our seat and vote as an elected member of the Executive Board until 2015. […] UNESCO and U.S. leadership at UNESCO matter. UNESCO directly advances U.S. interests in supporting girls’ and women’s education, facilitating important scientific research, promoting tolerance, protecting and preserving the world’s natural and cultural heritage, supporting freedom of the press, and much more. It is in that vein that President Obama has requested legislative authority to allow the United States to continue to pay its dues to UN agencies that admit the Palestinians as a member state when doing so is in the U.S. national interest. Although that proposal has not yet been enacted by Congress, the President remains committed to that goal.”
The United States actually only rejoined UNESCO back in 2002 after leaving under the Reagan administration in 1984, so it’s a shame to so soon lose a voice on the international level in the recognition of culture that needs preserving. And what if Palestine is granted membership on other United Nations organizations, like say the International Atomic Energy Agency or International Monetary Fund, will the country continue to have a diminished presence? It’s likely such a situation as the UNESCO one would be avoided there, but it’s still unfortunate to have education, science, and culture collaboration wounded in slow motion.