Posts tagged ‘unesco’

March 8, 2012

UNESCO. C’mon. You’re killing me.

As you may have noticed by now, I have an affinity for the United Nations system, in all its splendor and for all its bruises. As such, I take it quite badly when portions of that system are attacked unfairly. The latest whipping boy of the system has been the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For having the most benign sounding name ever, it is constantly finding itself in turmoil it seems. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration withdrew from the organization entirely. We returned in 2003, but relations aren’t exactly prime right now.

Last year, funding was stripped from UNESCO by the US and Israel for its members voting to allow a seat for Palestine as a full member state. Emphasis on “state”. A relatively obscure law in the United States kicked in, revoking all funding for UNESCO and threatening the same to any other body within the United Nations system that allowed for a Palestinian State to take a seat, circumventing Israel/Palestine peace talks. I did not approve of this move. The Obama Administration has made clear that it wants to get a waiver for the current fiscal year for UNESCO from Congress, and has included its normal funding levels in the FY13 Proposed Budget. The likelihood of this being approved by Congress is lower than the odds that Joseph Kony will see how reviled he is on Facebook and turn himself in. But I digress. It was a move that showed support for the United Nations, and so I was happy.

But UNESCO’s Executive Board is currently meeting, and the collection of states are taking steps that make me bang my head against my desk and cause me to question my support. Before continuing, let me make clear that I know this goes against my separation of Member States from the institution, but really now, I feel this is worthy of my scorn. The first issue is a bit more complex than the second. Equatorial Guinea’s strongman president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo donated a large sum of money to UNESCO in 2008 to establish a life sciences prize named after him. Considering Equatorial Guniea’s rampant corruption, drug trafficking, and abuse of human rights, there was mild consternation at this prize by the human rights community, up to and including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The prize has been on hold since it was first approved by UNESCO’s Executive Board due to backlash.

Until recently, that is. Obiang, rather than withdrawing the prize as recommended by the Executive Director of UNESCO, has graciously allowed it to move forward without his name. Human Rights Watch, among others, isn’t of the opinion that the prize should be offered at all, with or without his name, and UNESCO’s own lawyers indicate that the prize can’t be awarded with a name change due to the stipulations of the donation. But, being a bold champion of freedom, a commission of the Executive Board has approved the prize by a vote of 33-18 with six abstentions. The full Board still has to approve, but with that lopsided a vote, I’m not sure a renewed campaign to sway the outcome will be effective in time.

The second rage-inducer is quite a bit more straightforward. The international community has, for a full year now, been on course for a systematic removal of Syria’s authority and role in the system. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, Syria isn’t a part of many international organizations to begin with. But last year, for reasons passing understanding, the Arab bloc at UNESCO put forward Syria as their representative to fill a seat on the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which has a human rights component to it. The West has been pushing since then to have Syria removed, which would be in line with actions taken against Libya in the run-up to the passage of Security Council Resolution 1973.

According to a copy of the draft resolution obtained by Nabil Abi Saab, however, that doesn’t look to be in the cards. As Reuters explains:

Ambassadors, including those of the US, France, Britain, Germany, Qatar and Kuwait, had asked in December for Syria’s situation to be discussed at the 58-member UNESCO executive board meeting this week.

Seventeen states led by Russia last week attempted to block the move and appear to have managed to convince members to water down the resolution.

“It is a strong condemnation. Eighteen countries of the executive council have signed it and it will be presented later today for vote,” a diplomatic source at UNESCO said.

A strong condemnation is great, really. But it shows far less resolve than is warranted for the situation at hand. What’s worse, it was such a simple move, removal of a country that is being further isolated by the day from a committee that, let’s be honest here, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Rather than sending a message of warning to Damascus, the passage of this resolution shows a lack of unanimity from the world that has been the plague of formulating a political solution to the crisis. The continued presence of Syria on the committee also manages to drag down the credibility of UNESCO, already low in the United States and potentially spreading to other Western states. Again, I understand that the Executive Board is composed of Member-States and so their decisions are outside the control of the Executive Director and Secretariat of UNESCO, but between the acquiescence to the delivery of the Obiang prize and the lack of resolve on Syria, UNESCO is letting me down here. So get it together, UNESCO. I want to keep on defending you, but you have to give something back to this relationship.

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February 15, 2012

Extended Version: On Budgets, UNESCO, and Overwhelming Pessimism

It has been a unbelievablely slow day at work today. How slow you ask? So slow I felt compelled to write about the FY 2013 Budget over at UN Dispatch. That slow. Granted, there were several extremely interesting points in the State Department’s budget request, which formed the backbone of the UN Dispatch piece, copied here:

Buried in the full State Department Congressional Justification [PDF], though, is a piece of information that’s actually a bit more interesting.  During a briefing on the FY13 Budget at the State Department on Monday, posted above, Deputy Secretary Thomas Nides was asked about page 713, which involves the funding of UNESCO. While FY 2012 had the line zeroed out, the FY 2013 request showed an increase to $79M, the same as in FY 2011. Secretary Nides replied:

Well, let’s do UNESCO first. As you know, the Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the President has also articulated quite clearly that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO. We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver, and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver. So we will work with them and work with our friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill in hopes that we can work an agreement out for us to fund. UNESCO does an enormously – a lot of enormously good work, and we’d like to make sure that we have a contribution commensurate with their work.

Secretary Nides’ statement gives me at least some cause for cheer. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Congress will pass a revocation of the law or even consider such a waiver in an election year.  The State Department’s budget is also likely to face renewed threats of cuts in the House of Representatives, and UNESCO’s funding will be a prime target. That being said, that the Obama Administration even calculated for providing dues to UNESCO shows that they haven’t given up completely on the body’s funding being restored.

That article was mostly reporting. As this is my own, personal blog, I feel a bit freer to throw around my opinion. My opinion being? Unless Congress flips in November, there’s no way this budget request comes through unscathed. Particularly the request for a waiver for UNESCO’s funding. And that is both a shame and a travesty. I wrote at length about last year’s budget fight, and how short-sighted Republicans have been when it comes to funding international affairs, those in the House in particular. None of which make any sense to me, several months later. Why wouldn’t we want to increase funding to peacekeeping, particularly as our own defense budget is slashed? When will Republican’s realize the value added in funding multilateral missions that require force? And I doubt that members of the House will appreciate the fact that the United Nations has passed a budget that actually calls for a reduction in spending for the first time in years. The time when Republicans were allowed to come out in favor of the UN, like former Senator Alan Simpson, seems to have passed, or at least has to be muzzled until retirement.

We’re likely in for a repeat of the events of the FY 12 fight for the next eight months until the election hits. Depending on the outcome of the election, the skirmishes over State’s budget, and the UNESCO waiver, will do one of the following. Should Obama win and the House remain under Speaker Boehner, they’ll likely continue apace, with the Senate acting as a vanguard against the House’s inevitable cuts. If the Democrats win enough seats to either flip the House or ease the Republican majority to a razor-thin margin, the calls for reducing Foggy Bottom’s budget will likely decrease, at least some. If the GOP manages to take control of the Senate, we would likely see an increase in pressure for cuts, as they join with the House in an assault on the re-elected Obama. Worst case scenario for State: the International budget gets trounced under a GOP White House and Congress.

As for UNESCO, I’m still pretty upset about that. There is zero chance that a waiver passes before November. I repeat: zero. Not in an election cycle in which candidates are falling over themselves to prove that they will be the most responsive to Israel’s security needs. While the Palestinian effort to gain acceptance into international bodies has certainly slowed, there’s always the chance of a resurgence, at which point more organizations could see a reduction in US funding. As that’s a chance I would hate to take, and I’m sure would leave the United States reeling as it realized just how much we depend on multilateral support, the responsible thing for Congress to do would be repeal the law. Then again, when was the last time Congress was responsible?

November 1, 2011

There is literally nobody in the Senate I don’t hate right now

So yesterday I cobbled together a piece on the US withdrawal of funds from UNESCO and why I thought it was a horrible idea in terms of diminishing US soft power. Well, it turns out the domestic political situation surrounding that choice is even worse than I thought. I hit Congress pretty hard, but assumed that it was mostly Republicans who would come out in support of the law as it stands. In the words of Chuck Testa, nope. As reported by Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy:

Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don’t plan to do anything about it.

“We’ve put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). “It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it.”

Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO’s General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.

Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.

“That’s what the law requires. It’s been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that’s the law,” he said.

That’s…about the opposite of the answer that I was hoping to hear from these two, Democratic Senators with a long history of working with global organizations and advocating a robust US role. You’d think that after their combined time in the Senate, the house of Congress that actually does get something of a say in foreign policy matters Constitutionally, that they would see that defunding UNESCO and potentially other international institutions represents a step backwards in the projection of American power. I guess not though.

I suppose that it’s understandable to wish that more organizations worked like the Senate, where one voice out of a hundred can grind things to a halt and cut off the flow of funds until they get their way. Also understandable how working in the Senate can lead to only viewing these UN bodies in light of the will of the whole on Palestinian statehood, while managing to block out every other thing that they’re working on that benefits the United States. My respect for the Senate as institution is plummeting by the second.

It’s both slightly comforting and infuriating to hear from the same report that Hill staffers on both sides of the are frustrated that the Obama Administration doesn’t have a way to work around the law or solve the crisis. So rather than offering up legislation to solve the issue that an earlier Congress created, we have Congressional offices hoping that the President can find a way to circumvent them. Right.

October 31, 2011

U.S. pulls UNESCO funding, but soft power is for chumps anyway, right?

Immediately following this morning’s announcement that Palestine is now the newest official member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. State Department came out with an announcement of their own: United States funding would be cut to the organization. The $60M check that the U.S. had written up for the Paris-based organization is going right back into Hillary Clinton’s pockets.

The move isn’t much of a surprise for anyone who’s been watching the deliberations in the various organizations that fall under the United Nations’ umbrella. Aside from the General Assembly and Security Council, UNESCO has been the body on the receiving end of the strongest diplomatic push by Palestine for recognition. Lawmakers on the right in the U.S. have been calling for defunding of any U.N. body that allowed Palestine as a full member since early September, and they unfortunately have the right of it. Under a U.S. law passed in 1994, funding is to be withheld from any part of the U.N. system that allows Palestine as a full member, written in such clear language that it would be difficult for the Obama organization to circumvent it. The part of the law that concerns us has been helpfully posted by the NY Times here:

“(a) Prohibition.--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.
“(b) Transfer or reprogramming.--Funds subject to the prohibition
contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United
Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are
authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed
or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the
Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes
for which such funds were authorized.”

While the President’s hands were tied on this one, that doesn’t mean the international community has to like it. Even Israel didn’t really want Washington to cut off funding to Turtle Bay, as was pointed out by Zvika Kreiger in the Atlantic earlier this month.  The United States has been helping Israel gain membership and influence on several U.N. bodies, including the UN Development Programme, and has been pushing for an initiative through UNESCO launch education efforts on the effects of Holocaust in various member states. With U.S. funding cut off, that goal may be a little bit further out of reach.

The less awful news is that the funding that the $60M won’t be stricken from the State Department’s budget, and can be used at the Secretary’s discretion to fulfill the job of UNESCO. And the United States’ membership in UNESCO remains intact, unlike under President Reagan back in the 1980s. But the job of UNESCO isn’t easily done by one state, nor should it be. The $60M could be used for any number of cultural agenda pieces, meant to bridge the divides between perception of America and reality in states that are hostile towards our policies, but coming directly from the US, rather than through an international organization, propaganda is a word that you’re going to hear thrown around a lot. Furthermore, it’s harder to push what many states sees as an unpopular pro-American agenda without the finances to back up your goals. The cultural dialogue promoted by UNESCO forms a key part to the smart power equation championed by the Obama Administration and HRC in particular.

Nobody is saying that participation in UNESCO is vital to the United States’ strategic national security needs. What I am saying quite strongly though is that taking part in UNESCO to the full extent certainly makes things easier for the United States. For example, as UN Dispatch just posted, one of the programs indirectly stripped of funding is designed to raise literacy in Afghanistan, especially among police officers. No worries though, I’m sure that having illiterate Afghan military and civilians serves our overall strategic goals there, so long as Palestine isn’t recognized as a state by anyone.

Further, as several commentators, including Senator Timothy Wirth of the United Nations Foundation, pointed out, there’s a slippery slope involved. Should the law stand on the books in its present form, there is the real chance that Palestine continues its push, resulting in more U.S. withdrawal of funding from bodies in which membership more directly serves our interest. The World Intellectual Property Organization is next in the Palestinian’s sights, and as boring as I personally find IP issues, American companies love having an arena for redress with internet piracy on the rise. I guess Congress is pro-piracy now?

There’s a larger picture here than just UNESCO and what U.S. pulling funding means, and it concerns the overall standing of soft power in the Washington policy planning context. What it boils down to is that soft power is a stronger currency than many in Congress are willing to admit. Soft power doesn’t win wars, but it does prevent them, but it would seem that doesn’t make for as good a campaign slogan as “friend of Israel”, even when we’re really doing Israel no favors. In the complex world we reside in, withdrawing a tool from our diplomatic arsenal is handicapping United States success in nipping issues in the bud before kinetic action is even necessary. Recognition of this fact is crucial for America to prosper in this century, that our defense industry can and should remain strong while giving diplomacy its full range of options. One less microphone for the U.S. to share its vision of the world is one more potential flare-up that we’ll have to address with force in the future. Our annual $80M, 22% of UNESCO’s budget, could have bought us a lot of influence in the world. Instead, we have traded it away for a symbol that means less than nothing. That $60M saved can be re-appropriated in the next budget to buy a couple of missiles, though. I’m sure that will benefit us more in the long run.