The UN Education, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently launched the Emergency Multi-Donor Fund to fill the void created by the decision of the United States, Canada, and Israel to halt their monetary contributions. Under U.S. legislation from the 1990s, the Obama administration was obligated to cut off funding to UNESCO after its members voted on October 31st by a margin of 107 to 14 with 52 abstentions to accept Palestine as a full member. The defunding may compromise basic international principles such as: UNESCO’s ability to promote universal education, Palestine’s right to international participation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and multilateral cooperation on a much larger scale should the U.S. defund other UN organs.

U.S. contributions to UNESCO constitute nearly $80 million, or twenty-two percent of UNESCO’s regular budget, the remaining $65 million of which was set to be paid this month. Facing this funding shortfall, UNESCO has halted all new projects, and may be forced to suspend other programs and lay off staff. The funding withdrawal was triggered by the 101st Congress’s passage of the Membership of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the UN Agencies bill. The Obama Administration is struggling to find a way around this statute that prohibits U.S. funding to any UN agency that accords the PLO the same standing as member states. The statute was passed in 1990, before the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. The Oslo Accords granted international recognition to the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. However, it is unlikely that Congress will amend this law and resume funding UNESCO because of a desire in the U.S. to cut government spending,

UNESCO, which has a budget of $653 million for 2011-2012, works to attain equal education around the world, mobilize support for sustainable development, and encourage intercultural dialogue. As a key player in fulfilling the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), UNESCO supports and promotes literacy programs across the developing world. The right to education is enshrined in Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. UNESCO’s Education for All initiative, which seeks to meet the second MDG of universal primary education by 2015, has faced large funding gaps since its inception. UNESCO’s own funding shortfall as a result of the Palestinian vote is likely to exacerbate budgetary constraints on this crucial program. Specific programs that may be affected include: literacy training for Afghan police, an Iraqi curriculum development program, and education infrastructure support in South Sudan. Although the Emergency Multi-Donor Fund is expected to fill some of the funding gaps, it is unlikely to cover the $65 million shortfall. Further, as the U.S. is expected to withhold funding for the coming years, UNESCO will be forced to reformulate its future budgetary plans as the Emergency Multi-Donor Fund is unlikely to continue to fill the twenty-two percent gap.

Implications of the vote do not stop at the funding shortfall to UNESCO. The Palestinian Authority (PA), a subsidiary of the PLO and the governing body of the West Bank, faces political and economic constraints as well. The Israeli cabinet voted this month to continue to withhold tax revenues owed to the PA because of the UNESCO vote. Palestinians face the threat of additional sanctions from Israel and the United States if they apply for full membership in other UN organs. In April, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process released a report on the progress the Palestinians have made towards state building.  The report concluded that the PA’s state-building policies have placed the Palestinians in a position for the establishment of a state in the near future. Palestinian participation in international organizations is crucial towards fulfilling conventional attributes of statehood. With the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians stalled, unilateral actions by the U.S. and Israel are frustrating another avenue for Palestine’s international participation. The U.S.’s Membership of the PLO in UN Agencies bill seeks to deter further attempts by the Palestinians to gain full recognition in international organizations. This is seemingly a breach of Article 5 of ICCPR, which says that no state shall engage in an activity that limits the freedoms provided in the ICCPR. These freedoms include the right of self-determination and the right of peoples to freely determine their political status.

Members of UNESCO contribute according to their share in the world economy. A member state that fails to pay its bills will also lose its vote in the organization. The consequences of a U.S. refusal to recognize the PLO could be far-reaching. If the Palestinians follow through on plans to apply for full membership in other UN and international institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization and World Bank, U.S. law will require de-funding organizations that provide crucial international cooperation. It would deprive much of the UN system of its single largest monetary contributor, thus hindering the work of these specialized UN agencies.