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Palestinian membership in UNESCO is just the tip of the iceberg

The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations. The ...

The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.

The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "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."

Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "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."

The Obama administration is scrambling right now to find a way around the fact that existing U.S. law could force the United States to stop participating in the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO if the Palestinians are given member state status, setting a precedent that could repeat itself in a host of other U.N. organizations.

The administration is contending with a 1994 law (P.L. 103-236, Title IV), which would bar U.S. contributions "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."

Another law (P.L. 101-246, Title IV), from 1990, states that, "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."

The Palestinians cleared a hurdle this week when the UNESCO executive board approved their bid to join the organization, sending the matter to a vote by UNESCO’s 193-nation General Conference. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized UNESCO on Wednesday for taking up the issue.

"I think that that is a very odd procedure indeed and would urge the governing body of UNESCO to think again before proceeding with that vote," Clinton told reporters in the Dominican Republic.

She acknowledged the "strong legislative prohibition that prevents the United States from funding organizations that jump the gun, so to speak, in recognizing entities before they are fully ready for such recognition."

The U.S. has not yet paid their bills on UNESCO for 2011, about $80 million, which is 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. If the law is triggered and the U.S. does not pay in 2012, the U.S. would lose its vote in the organization. Plus, UNESCO officials have told the U.S. that if U.S. funds are not expected over the next two years, they may have to initiate massive layoffs beginning in January to account for the shortfall in funds.

Palestinian membership in UNESCO would also grant them immediate membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The U.S. would have to stop contributing to WIPO but America is not a member of UNIDO.

We’re told that the State Department is currently having their attorneys draft a legal opinion on how U.S. laws would affect U.S. participations in U.N. bodies that grant the Palestinians member state status. Their ruling will have ramifications not only for UNESCO, but for all other U.N. specialized agencies that the PLO is expected to submit their application to, such as the IAEA, WTO, WHO, World Bank, and others.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the administration was "still working" on what the legislative triggers regarding funding would mean. But a State Department official said that the administration has not been able to find a way around the law.

"We have a suicide vest padlocked around our torso and the Palestinians have the remote control," the State Department official said. "They get to decide whether they blow us up or not. It’s 100 percent up to them."

Meanwhile, Congress is ratcheting up its own involvement on the issue. Later today, 10 House appropriators will call on UNESCO not to move forward with consideration of Palestinian membership, in a letter to UNESCO Executive Director Irina Bokova obtained by The Cable.

"We… respectfully request that you do everything in your power to ensure that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s application to become a Member State does not come before the UNESCO General Conference," states the letter, prepared by the office of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). "Any recognition of Palestine as a Member State would not only jeopardize the hope for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but would endanger the United States’ contribution to UNESCO."

Signatories of the letter include the heads of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee, Kay Granger (R-TX) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Tom Cole (R-OK), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Steve Austria (R-IL), Charles Dent (R-PA), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), and Adam Schiff (D-CA).

One senior Republican staffer pointed out the irony that it was President George W. Bush who brought the United States back into UNESCO, and now the United States might be forced to leave the organization by Obama — a president who came to office promising to reverse what he argued was Bush’s tendency to ignore the international community.

"Remember, we joined UNESCO in part because we needed them to help de-radicalize textbooks particularly in the Muslim world after 9/11 and as a platform to counter expanding anti-American attitudes in academia," the staffer said "And now, by de-funding UNESCO, we lose all the leverage we had gained."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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