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UNESCO Approves Palestinian Membership Bid – A Case for US Countermeasures Against the Organization?

Published on November 8, 2011        Author: 

Christiane Ahlborn is Ph.D. Candidate at the Amsterdam Center for International Law and member of the project on Shared Responsibility in International Law (SHARES)

On 31 October 2011, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations (UNESCO) approved the bid of Palestine for full membership with the necessary two-thirds majority. Although 107 UNESCO States voted in favor of Palestinian membership, the approval also faced notable opposition by 14 States. The overall number of 173 votes cast included 52 abstentions. Among the States voting against the bid were the United States, Canada and several EU member States, including Germany and the Netherlands. While the diverging positions of EU member States thus reveals once again the lack of unanimity in EU external relations policy, the US disapproval of the Palestinian UNESCO membership may have more serious consequences at the level of US-UNESCO relations. For after the approval of Palestine’s membership bid, the US immediately announced that it would cut off its funds to UNESCO, which amount to 60 million USD annually. This decision is based on several US laws that prohibit the US government to provide funds to any United Nations agency or affiliated organization that “accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states” (see P.L. 101-246, Title IV [1990] and P.L. 103-236, Title IV [1994]).

International Responsibility for Withholding Membership Dues

Since the US is the largest contributor to the UNESCO budget with a share of 22 percent, its decision to withhold its contributions will most likely impede the effective functioning of the organization. As the Director-General of UNESCO stated on 2 November 2011, the continued withholding of dues may severely affect UNESCO’s activities in a variety of areas. UNESCO already felt the repercussions of the lack of US funding after 1984 when the United States withdrew from UNESCO due to the increasing politicization of the Organization, rejoining only in 2003 (for a discussion of the reasons for the withdrawal see Hans N. Weiler, ‘Withdrawing from UNESCO: A Decision in Search of an Argument’ (1986) Comparative Education Review 132).

Considering the potentially detrimental effects of US withholdings, this contribution seeks to examine whether the US could be held internationally responsible for its acts under the law of international responsibility. After all, Article IX of the constituent instrument of UNESCO (the UNESCO Constitution) states that member States of the organization have a “financial responsibility” towards the Organization, i.e. an obligation to provide the Organization with the necessary financial resources, as decided by the General Conference of UNESCO. Although this obligation arguably could have been formulated in more concrete terms, it is suggested that the United States would breach its obligations under the UNESCO Constitution by withholding its membership dues, and accordingly be under a secondary obligation to make reparation either in kind and/or by means of compensation.

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