Palestine Wants to Join Three International Organizations, Including the Global Chemical Weapons Watchdog. This Could Be A Problem

UN Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process Nicoklay Mladenov told the Security Council today that Palestine has acceded to three international organizations: the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

This move appears to be part of a campaign by Palestine to expand its de-factor recognition as an independent state. Palestine already has observer status at the UN, having been blocked by the Obama administration from obtaining full membership. However, it has achieved full membership status at UNESCO, where an overwhelming majority of member states voted to grant it membership as a state party (and where no state holds a veto).

But there is some danger embedded in Palestine’s decision to join these entities.

Since the mid 1990s the United States has had legislation on the books that automatically cuts US funding for UN entities that admit Palestine as a member state. When UNESCO member states admitted Palestine as one of their own, the United States immediately cut off its payments to fund UNESCO, which amounted to nearly one third of UNESCO’s budget. The United States eventually got so deep into arrears at UNESCO that it lost its voting rights there.

Now, there is profound danger that should OPCW and UNCTAD member states admit Palestine will lose crucial funding from the United States.  (This is less of an issue for UNIDO, which does not receive US funding.)

UNCTAD receives funding from US and would immediately lose that funding. OPCW, though, is in a bit of a different situation.  It is not technically a UN entity. Rather it is a “related” organization.

OCPW is also very much at the heart of US-backed efforts to investigate and contain the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and more recently in the Salisbury, England poisoning of a former Russian spy.  The United States has been robustly supporting efforts to expand the role of OPCW in Syria to confirm and identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks.

Because of its ambiguous relationship status with the UN, OPCW may be immune from this funding cut off. It is an independent international organization that calls itself “related” to the United Nations– but it is not a constituent agency.

Whether or not the OCPW would get its funding cut could come down to a decision by the State Department to determine whether being “related” to the UN fits the strictures of the 1990s legislation mandating a funding freeze. From the perspective of the OPCW, this is a lifeline. The State Department has some wiggle room that is not afforded to UN agencies like UNCTAD or UNESCO.

So far, it seems that the State Department is still, very much, robustly supportive of the work of the OPCW. As news broke of the decision by Palestine to accede to the OPCW, the State Department Spokesperson tweeted in support of the work of OPCW.

For now it seems that US funding for the OPCW might be safe. But should know definitively by the middle of June. According to the charter of the OPCW, member states are automatically admitted 30 days after they formally accede to the treaty.  

This episode is also a good reminder that these laws dating from the 1990s remain on the books–and are also incredibly inflexible. They contain no national security waivers. So should Palestine take further steps to join entities that are definitively part of the UN,like the World Health Organization, those entities could expect their most important funder and member state to withdraw from the organization.

Unless these laws are changed, that outcome remains a very distinct possibility.