Leading Senator Calls for Change in Self-Defeating US Policy on UNESCO

In October 2011, the member states of UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state. That triggered a decades old statute in the United States Congress that automatically cut off American financial contributions to UNESCO.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a leading United States Senator who chairs the powerful judiciary committee, is calling for an end to this self-defeating policy.  He gave this floor speech yesterday which nicely articulates why this old legislation is illogical and undermines to American interests.


Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, there was a lot of attention recently on the French military’s operation to repel Islamic extremists and Tuareg nationalist rebels who had terrorized the local population of northern Mali, including in the ancient city of Timbuktu. That operation was widely welcomed by local Malian citizens and the international community. Many of the rebels are believed to be hiding out among the local population until the French soldiers leave, so whether they are ultimately vanquished remains to be seen. It will depend in large measure on the longer term capability of a multinational force of African troops supported by the United States and others.

Besides terrorizing, torturing, mutilating, and slaughtering innocent people, the rebels destroyed ancient tombs, shrines, and manuscripts dating to a period many centuries ago when Timbuktu was a crossroads for commerce and a center of intellectual pursuits in northern Africa. I mention this not only to inform those who may be unaware of Mali’s ongoing cultural importance, but also to call attention to the fact that Irina Bokova, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, commonly known as UNESCO, has already pledged to reconstruct the damaged mausoleums. As she was quoted in the New York Times on February 4, 2013, “This is the record of the golden ages of the Malian empire. If you let this disappear, it would be a crime against humanity.”

There are also little known heroes in this otherwise humanitarian and cultural disaster. Malian residents, particularly Ali Iman Ben Essayouti, who knew the importance of priceless manuscripts preserved in a library funded by international donors, including the Library of Congress and Department of State, managed to carefully move some of them to another location where the rebels did not find them. As a result, although the rebels burned the library, only a small portion of the manuscripts were destroyed.

The other point of this is that, as many Senators are aware, the United States, once the largest contributor to UNESCO, including under President George W. Bush, was forced to sever its support last year due to a 1990s law that prohibits U.S. funding to any United Nations-affiliated agency in which the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO, obtains the same standing as a member state. After UNESCO’s members voted, against the advice of Ms. Bokova, to grant the PLO that standing, the law was triggered and U.S. funding abruptly ended.

This is illogical and self-defeating. First, although the PLO was a terrorist organization in the 1990s, it is no longer. Second, by cutting off our contribution to UNESCO we not only empower its other members, including Russia, Iran, and Syria, we also make it impossible to assist the organization in the kind of cultural preservation activities it is now undertaking in Mali, which are clearly in the national interest of the United States. There are many other examples, including World Heritage Sites like the Great Barrier Reef, which UNESCO designates and protects today without the support of the United States. Finally, if U.S. funding is not restored before the end of this fiscal year, we will lose our vote in the organization. Ironically, despite PLO membership in UNESCO, Israel has paid its dues through 2014. Presumably, Israeli officials recognize, as we should, that their interests are far better served by participating in a U.N. agency, not by watching from the sidelines.

Mr. President, regardless of what one may think about Palestinian President Abbas’ effort to obtain U.N. membership for the PLO, and I am among those who regard it as an unhelpful distraction, cutting off U.S. funding to UNESCO and thereby weakening our influence and empowering our adversaries makes no sense. It is time we recognize that a law that might have seemed sensible to some people years ago has had unintended consequences that run directly counter to our interests, and should be amended or repealed.

I’d also add a couple other examples that nicely illustrates the absurdity of this legislation.

1) UNESCO performs many scientific and education functions. This includes maintaining a Tsunami early warning system in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s close to the USA! But American policy now prohibits the USA from paying for it.

2) Another task of UNESCO is promoting Holocaust education worldwide. That had to be dramatically scaled back. Doesn’t it seem perverse that the USA is witholding funding for global Holocaust education simply because Palestine joined UNESCO?

It is well past time that the US Congress reforms this old statute. This policy makes no sense and only harms American interests.  Good for Senator Leahy to call attention to this absurdity.