U.S. loses UNESCO voting rights for standing with Israel in Palestinian statehood row

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

Updated at 4:09 p.m. ET

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, told The Associated Press that 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 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.

State Department spokewoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the administration regretted losing the U.S. vote.

"We note a loss of vote in the general conference is not a loss of U.S. membership," Psaki said. "The United States intends to continue its engagement with UNESCO in every possible way - we can attend meetings and participate in debate, and we will maintain our seat and vote as an elected member of the executive board until 2015."

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.

Some U.S. legislators also are concerned.

"The United States must not voluntarily forfeit its leadership in the world community," Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, told the AP in an email.

With efforts by Mr. Obama to get the money restored having failed or stalled, Ellison plans to introduce legislation in Congress to overturn what he calls the "antiquated" laws that automatically halted the flow of funds to the agency from November 2011.

The Obama administration has proposed language to amend the legislation, but it remains on the table amid recent U.S. budget setbacks.

For some it's a question of sooner rather than later, with the U.S. racking up arrears to UNESCO of some $220,000 a day, which it will have to pay back if it ever wants to fill the empty chair and get back the vote.

"Paying off three years is manageable, but it indeed becomes much more difficult if you allow many years to pass and the bill gets larger and larger and larger," said Esther Brimmer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

The Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, said other countries are beginning to make up for the U.S. shortfall. "Is this in the interest of the U.S., to be replaced?" he asked.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova lamented the changes that are not only seeing America silenced within her organization but also bringing UNESCO financially to its knees.

"I regret to say that I'm seeing, in these last two years ... a declining American influence and American involvement," Bokova said in an interview.

"I can't imagine how we could disengage with the United States at UNESCO. We are so intertwined with our message. What I regret is that this decision became so divisive and triggered this suspension of the funding," she added.

Bokova said she accepts political reality and will find ways for UNESCO to continue its work, despite a 2014 budget that's down by an estimated $150 million.

Some fear this debacle will have more serious consequences, if Palestine joins other more strategically important international agencies such as the World Health Organization.

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