PARIS (AP) — American influence in culture, science and education around the world took a high-profile blow Friday after the U.S. automatically lost voting rights at UNESCO, after missing a crucial deadline to repay its debt to the world’s cultural agency.
The U.S. hasn’t paid its dues to the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in protest over the decision by world governments to make Palestine a UNESCO member in 2011. Israel suspended its dues at the same time and also lost voting rights on Friday.
Under UNESCO rules, the U.S. had until Friday morning to resume funding or explain itself, or it automatically loses its vote. A UNESCO official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said nothing was received from either the U.S. or Israel.
The suspension of U.S. contributions, which account for $80 million a year — 22 percent of UNESCO’s overall budget — brought the agency to the brink of a financial crisis and forced it to cut or scale back American-led initiatives such as Holocaust education and tsunami research over the past two years.
It has worried many in Washington that the U.S. is on track to becoming a toothless UNESCO member with a weakened voice in international programs fighting extremism through education, and promoting gender equality and press freedoms.
Some fear that a weaker U.S. presence will lead to growing anti-Israeli sentiment within UNESCO, where Arab-led criticism of Israel for territorial reasons has long been an issue.
“We won’t be able to have the same clout,” said Phyllis Magrab, the Washington-based U.S. National Commissioner for UNESCO. “In effect, we (now won’t) have a full tool box. We’re missing our hammer.”
The UNESCO tension has prompted new criticism of U.S. laws that force an automatic funding cutoff for any U.N. agency with Palestine as a member. The official list of countries that lose their votes was expected to be read aloud on Saturday before the entire UNESCO general conference.
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, told The Associated Press that his country supported the Unites States’ decision, “objecting to the politicization of UNESCO, or any international organization, with the accession of a non-existing country like Palestine.”
UNESCO may be best known for its program to protect the cultures of the world via its Heritage sites, which include the Statue of Liberty and Mali’s Timbuktu.
But its core mission, as conceived by the U.S., a co-founder of the agency in 1946, was to be an anti-extremist organization. In today’s world, it tackles foreign policy issues such as access to clean water, teaches girls to read, works to eradicate poverty, promotes freedom of expression and gives people creative thinking skills to resist violent extremism.
Among UNESCO programs already slashed over funding shortages is one in Iraq that was intended to help restore water facilities. In danger was a Holocaust and genocide awareness program in Africa to teach about non-violence, non-discrimination and ethnic tolerance, using the example of the mass killing of Jews during World War II.
This loss is a particular blow to the U.S., since Holocaust awareness was one of the areas the country aggressively promoted in the agency’s agenda when it rejoined in 2002 after an 18-year hiatus, during which the U.S. had withdrawn from the organization over differences in vision.
The concern over UNESCO is resonating in the U.S. Congress.