U.S. stops UNESCO funding over Palestinian vote

WASHINGTON Mon Oct 31, 2011 4:35pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it had stopped funding UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, following its vote to grant the Palestinians full membership.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the United States had no choice but to halt funding because of U.S. laws passed in the 1990s, saying Washington would not make a planned $60 million transfer that was due in November.

"The United States ... remains strongly committed to robust, multilateral engagement across the U.N. system. However, Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers long-standing legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO," Nuland said.

Nuland also said the vote Monday by the member states of UNESCO to admit the Palestinians as a member was "regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

The United States provides 22 percent of the funding of the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

That agency decided on Monday to give the Palestinians full membership, a vote that will boost their bid at the United Nations for recognition as a state.

UNESCO is the first U.N. agency the Palestinians have joined as a full member since President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full membership of the United Nations on September 23. Among UNESCO's tasks are designating World Heritage sites, promoting education around the world, and managing a tsunami early-warning system in the Pacific.

TWO-DECADE PROCESS

The United States and its ally Israel oppose the Palestinian diplomatic foray in the U.N. system, describing it as an attempt to bypass the two-decade old peace process. Washington says only a resumption of peace talks ending in a treaty with Israel can bring about the Palestinian goal of statehood.

Earlier Monday, Republican U.S. lawmakers demanded the funding cutoff, and the White House as well as other officials across the U.S. political spectrum criticized UNESCO's action.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the UNESCO move was "no substitute for negotiations, but it is deeply damaging to UNESCO."

Palestinian officials have said they intend to apply for full membership of as many U.N. agencies as possible. This clearly worries State Department officials who fear a loss of U.S. influence if more funding cutoffs are triggered by law.

The 1990s law prohibits U.S. funding to any U.N. organization that grants full membership to any group that does not have "internationally recognized attributes" of statehood.

The language was intended to pre-emptively block normalization of Palestinian relations and activities in the international community, said Lara Friedman, policy director at Americans for Peace Now, an American-Jewish pro-peace group.

The law could also prohibit American funding for any other U.N. organization that grants Palestinians full membership status, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which among other things monitors Iran's nuclear program.

Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations, met representatives of major U.S. companies on Monday to address concerns over a potential Palestinian bid to join the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Geneva-based WIPO is the U.N. organization charged with protecting copyright, covering everything from song credits to patents for new drugs and high-tech innovations.

Another American Jewish group, J. Street, urged Congress to amend the law to preserve U.S. funding to UNESCO and others.

"If Congress does not act, we could soon find ourselves without a voice at U.N.-affiliated agencies of vital importance to American jobs, safety and security," J Street's Dylan Williams said.

(Additional reporting by Debbie Charles, Andrew Quinn and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara)