What the USA Will Lose When it Loses its Vote at UNESCO

When the governing body of UNESCO meets this week in Paris for its annual meeting member states will have a lot on the plate. They must decide on re-electing the current director General Irina Bokova, vote for members of UNESCO’s executive board and other decision making bodies, and pass a slew of resolutions that will guide UNESCOs work for the future.

It’s a packed agenda. But one country that will not even be able to cast a vote is the USA.

That is because a pair of laws passed by the United States Congress in the 1990s forced the USA to suspend its dues payments to UNESCO in 2011 when member states admitted Palestine into UNESCO. The USA has been in arrears for more than two years, which according to UNESCO’s bylaws means the USA must forfeit its vote.

UNESCO is the UN body that deals with education, science and culture. It supports literacy programs all around the world, manages the World Heritage Program, runs Holocaust education, and manages Tsunami early warning systems across the planet. These programs have taken a hit over the past two years as the USA  — which previously was UNESCO’s largest funder, providing 22% of UNESCO’s regular budget — ceased all payments. Programs supporting girls education and teaching police officers in Afghanistan how to read had to be scaled back or eliminated. Now, after two years of non-payment,  the USA will lose its vote.

This has real world political, diplomatic and economic consequences for the USA. Most of the work of UNESCO proceeds by consensus. This means that one vote can make a big difference. When UN bodies, like UNESCO, take up resolutions concerning Israel, the USA is routinely the strongest voice protecting its ally. That vote is now gone. The USA will also have harder time steering the work of UNESCO’s subsidiary bodies, like the committee that decides on World Heritage designations towards favorable outcomes. In the near term, this is bad news for San Antonio (which is trying to get the World Heritage designation for the Alamo) and the archeological park in Poverty Point, Louisiana.

“It will be harder for us to fight politicized issues that certain countries bring up,” says Daniel Harsha, a spokesperson for the Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “This also hurts us diplomatically because it is the first time that the USA has lost a vote at a UN agency. And it hurts us economically because communities that are trying to get their World Heritage Sites nominated will have a harder time doing that now if we don’t have a voice. If we don’t have a vote and are not paying our dues, what force can we use to advocate for cities like San Antonio to given World Heritage status?”

The only way to restore America’s vote at UNESCO would be to restore the USA’s dues payments. Doing so would require and act of Congress to amend those laws from the 1990s. Given the current disarray on Capitol Hill, that does not appear likely to happen anytime soon.

For now, UNESCO will carry on. But the USA’s ability to influence its work will be greatly diminished–and it has only itself to blame.