The US Could Soon Lose Its Voting Ability at Unesco

Monticello, a Unesco World Heritage Site
Monticello, the plantation home of US President Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Va. He designed the house and its grounds as well as the University of Virginia campus nearby; both are Unesco World Heritage Sites.

The United States may be ineligible to vote in Unesco’s November elections to choose members of the agency’s executive board and the next director-general, among other major matters, because the US stopped paying its dues as a member in October 2011.

Unesco, formally called the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is known for its World Heritage Site preservation program as well as science education, promotion of girls’ schooling and support of press freedom. With the government of Kenya, the agency recently made an important discovery of groundwater reserves in the drought-plagued region of Turkana, through a mapping project paid for by Japan.

Unesco is holding its biannual general conference from Nov. 5 to 20 at its base in Paris, during which its 195 members vote on who will win the vacant seats on the 58-member executive board (the US is a member till 2015; terms are four years), passes its two-year budget and decides who will become the chief for the next four years. The formal vote for director-general is Nov. 12; for the board election, Nov. 13.

This month, the board nominated Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian and Unesco’s current director-general, to another term, making her a veritable shoo-in. The other candidates were Rachad Farah, a diplomat from Djibouti who is endorsed by the Arab League, and Joseph Maila, a Lebanese academic who is a director at the Catholic Institute of Paris. Global Memo, a digital source that tracks UN elections, says that “history indicates that the General Conference will confirm the judgment of the Executive Board and that Ms. Bokova will serve an additional term as Director General of UNESCO.”

The US could lose its voting right at the conference because it has withheld its dues of 22 percent, or about $220 million, of Unesco’s 2011-2013 budget of $653 million, after the agency voted to admit Palestine as the 195th member on Oct. 31, 2011. In doing so, Unesco lost its biggest donor.

A spokeswoman for the State Department told PassBlue that the US has been working with Congress to seek a waiver so that it can pay the contributions that enable the US to keep its “vote and influence within the UN and its specialized agencies.”

This summer, President Obama nominated Crystal Nix-Hines, a lawyer who has worked for the State Department and as a news correspondent to become the next US ambassador to the UN mission at Unesco, replacing David Killion. Her nomination by the Senate has yet to be confirmed. The budget standoff in Congress could be making approval of her candidacy a low priority.

The rules to vote in Unesco’s general conference are clear: each country must be up to date with its assessed contributions; more technically, “A Member State shall have no vote in the General Conference if the total amount of contributions due from it exceeds the total amount of contributions payable by it for the current year and the immediately preceding calendar year.”

Exceptions can be made if “failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member State.”

The conference is attended by member countries, observers for nonmember countries, intergovernmental and nongovernmental groups and others. Each country in the conference has one vote. The conference also determines the main work of Unesco.


 

 

Unesco has made up the financial shortfall left by the US nonpayment of dues and the financial crisis worldwide through other country donations and stringent budget cuts, reducing overall expenses going into this year by $136 million and relying on an emergency fund and extrabudgetary resources to meet its debt. It said that such an approach was unsustainable.

The vote to admit Palestine was contentious. In the past, the US quit its membership from Unesco in 1984 because it considered the agency bloated and diverging from US goals, but it rejoined in 2003 under President George Bush. The agency’s board just passed six resolutions condemning Israel, a bias that is a continuing source of political friction among the board. Israel also cut off its financing to Unesco in 2011. One of the resolutions stemmed from a last-minute cancellation by Israel to allow a Unesco delegation to inspect the Old City in Jerusalem.

[This article was updated on Nov. 9, 2013, to reflect revised figures from Unesco on how much the US was supposed to have paid in dues to Unesco over three years, starting in 2011 and ending in 2013.]

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