The US, as Predicted, Loses a Valuable Vote at Unesco

As predicted by PassBlue, the United States has lost its voting rights in Unesco, since it stopped paying its dues almost exactly two years ago because of a Congressional ban on support for any UN agency that gives full membership to the Palestinians. Unesco suspended American voting rights on Nov. 8, as well as those of Israel, which also stopped paying dues two years ago as a protest to Palestine’s affiliation.

Irina Bokova of Unesco
Irina Bokova, head of Unesco.

The possibility of the US, which is still a Unesco board member, losing its right to vote was first reported in PassBlue on Oct. 17. Unesco, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is primarily known for its designation of World Heritage Sites, protecting press freedom and supporting education for children, particularly for girls.

The US voting loss was announced on Nov. 8 during  the agency’s biannual general conference being held at its base in Paris. Among other tasks at the conference, the 195 members vote on who will win the vacant seats on the 58-member executive board (the US is a member until 2015; terms are four years). It also passes its two-year budget and formally decides who will become the chief for the next four years. The current director general, Irina Bokova, from Bulgaria, is expected to be re-elected.

Dues from the US, the largest donor to Unesco, totaled about 22 percent of the agency’s budget. The actual dollars lost to Unesco, a spokeswoman said recently, is $220 million over three years, since the US stopped paying in 2011. The agency has made budget cuts, but Bokova says the reductions and other short-term fixes cannot be sustainable.

Bokova said of the US losing its voting rights: “This is not only about financing. This is about values. This is the ‘smart power’ that is in such need today, to lay the foundations for lasting peace and sustainable development.”

The US ambassador to Unesco, David Killion, told delegates at the conference, after the suspension was announced, that Washington was “working tirelessly” to restore funding, Reuters reported.

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

Bokova has been mentioned as a possible contender to become the next UN secretary-general in 2017, since it is Eastern Europe’s “turn,” geographically; her current re-election to Unesco could make her an even stronger candidate for secretary-general because she remains in the UN system. Bokova earns an annual gross salary of $232,000, in line with the pay of other agency administrators, such as the UN Development Program, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

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Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach is the founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Colorado, graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

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