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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. government on Monday announced it has been forced to cut all funding to the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO after it voted to grant full membership to Palestine.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described the vote to admit Palestine as a UNESCO member state as ‘regrettable’ and ‘premature.’ She said it undermines the goal of a ‘comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.’
“The United States remains steadfast in its support for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. But such a state can only be realized through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Nuland said.
She added: “The United States also remains strongly committed to robust multilateral engagement across the UN system. However, Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO.”
Two U.S. laws passed in the 1990s ban Washington from financing any United Nations agency which admits Palestine as a full member. As a result, UNESCO will lose nearly $80 million in annual funding, which represents 22 percent of its budget.
“We were to have made a $60 million payment to UNESCO in November and we will not be making that payment,” Nuland said, while adding that the United States will maintain its membership in and commitment to UNESCO.
But Nuland acknowledged that the decision to cut all funding to UNESCO could have serious implications for its membership status. “It could have implications for our voting rights,” she said. “Under UNESCO’s constitution, a member state will have no vote in the general conference if it gets more than two years in arrears in its contribution. So our actual arrearage status will begin in January.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognized UNESCO could lose a significant part of its funding. “It is [up to] Member States to ensure that the United Nations system as a whole [has] a consistent political and financial support,” he said. “As such, we will need to work on practical solutions to preserve UNESCO’s financial resources. I don’t wish to comment further at this time.”
Palestine is currently an observer at UNESCO but a group of Arab states previously submitted a recommendation to the organization’s executive committee to request full membership. On Monday, the proposal received 107 votes in favor of admission, 14 votes against and 52 abstentions.
Admission to UNESCO for states which are not members of the United Nations requires a recommendation by the organization’s executive committee and a two thirds majority vote in favor by member states. Abstentions are not considered to be votes, and no member has veto powers.
Among the countries which voted against admission were Israel, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and Germany. Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa, Belgium and France were among the countries which voted in favor while the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan were among those who abstained.
Before Palestine will become a full member, it must sign and ratify UNESCO’s constitution which is open for signature in the archives of the British government in London. Upon signature, Palestine will become UNESCO’s 195th member state.
The vote was strongly condemned by Israel which rejected the decision. “This is a unilateral Palestinian maneuver which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement,” a spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The spokesperson added: “This decision will not turn the Palestinian Authority into an actual state yet places unnecessary burdens on the route to renewing negotiations. Israel believes that the correct and only way to make progress in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is through direct negotiations without preconditions.”
The Israeli government thanked the 14 countries which it said “displayed a sense of responsibility” and opposed UNESCO’s decision. “It is disappointing that the European Union, which is working to renew the direct negotiations and opposes the Palestinian move, could not reach a unified position to prevent this decision,” the spokesperson said.
The move to admit Palestine to UNESCO is part of a broader campaign by Palestine to get recognition as a state by the United Nations. On September 23, Palestine filed a request for a full UN membership even though the United States is likely to veto this.
About 120 out of 193 countries have currently recognized the State of Palestine and those are seen as possible supporters if the UN General Assembly votes on the issue. If the UN Security Council resolution to recognize Palestine is approved, Palestine would become the 194th member of the United Nations.