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US, Israel lose UNESCO voting right in dispute

By Thomas Adamson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 8 2013 12:20 p.m. MST

The Palestinian Ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar, left, checks his tablet during a session of the UNESCO General Conference, in Paris, Friday Nov. 8, 2013. 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.

Jacques Brinon, Associated Press

PARIS — American influence in culture, science and education around the world took a high-profile blow Friday when the U.S. automatically lost voting rights at UNESCO by missing a 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 three years in protest to the decision by world governments to make Palestine a UNESCO member in 2011. Israel suspended its dues at the same time in support of the U.S. and also lost voting rights on Friday.

Under UNESCO rules, the U.S. and Israel had until Friday morning to resume funding or explain themselves, or to automatically lose their vote. A UNESCO official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, said nothing was received from either country.

The suspension of U.S. contributions — which account for $80 million a year, or 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget — brought the agency to the brink of a financial crisis and forced it to end or scale back American-led initiatives such as Holocaust education and tsunami research over the past two years.

Many in Washington are now worried that the U.S. is on track to becoming a toothless UNESCO member with a weakened voice in international programs such as 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.

In a speech Friday night, David Killion, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, told delegates that top U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama "have been working tirelessly to seek a legislative remedy that would allow the United States to resume paying our contributions to UNESCO. Regrettably, that remedy has not yet been achieved."

But in defense of the U.S. suspension of funds, Killion reminded member nations that the United States had articulated its "principled position" regarding Palestine long before the controversial 2011 decision.

Israel's ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, said in an interview that his country supports the U.S. 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 is 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 UNESCO over differences in vision.

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