Decisions in a Diplomatic Game of Chance

November 22, 2011|Patrick Madden, UNA-USA Executive Director

Life at the US Mission to the UN has gotten more complicated…to be polite.

The Palestinian bid for international recognition has long focused on the United Nations in New York. But a surprise decision by the Palestinians to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris has set off a diplomatic chain reaction with far-reaching consequences for American and global interests. No matter what one thinks of the appropriate role of the Palestinians in the UN, the impact of a longstanding American law related to Palestinian membership in the UN system poses a challenge for all of us who care about the United Nations.  

In October, the Palestinians opted not to wait for a Security Council or General Assembly vote on membership, and applied for membership in UNESCO. They were voted in – domino 2 fell. This triggered domino 3, laws passed in 1990 and 1994 by Congress prohibits the U.S. from providing funding to UN agencies that give the Palestinians full membership. Many U.S. citizens and other countries were stunned to see the U.S. immediately withhold its funding – which equals 22% of UNESCO’s budget.

There’s a long chain of dominoes on the horizon set to fall surrounding the interaction between existing American law and the Palestinian pursuit of membership in different UN agencies. However, most Americans don’t realize U.S. foreign policy, U.S. national security and the UN go hand-in-hand. Check out a few recent headlines that U.S. national security experts are keeping an eye on:

•    South Sudan Seeks More UN Muscle in Contested Abyei
•    Child Malnutrition Levels High in Ethiopia's Refugee Camps
•    UN Report Cites Secret Nuclear Research by Iran

The reality is the UN is involved with nearly every major global security issue, and often long before the U.S. openly enters the dialogue. What’s profound about the UN is the scope of its reach. The UN’s  formal agreements and collaborative environment affect the private, public, education and nonprofit sectors every day. The U.S. needs to be at the table, leading debate and discussion at the UN. Consider some other stories that received slightly less ink:

•    UN Sees Boom to Fees Paid on Intellectual Property
•    United Nations Experts Train Rwandan Air Operators
•    More than 1m Zimbabweans Struggle for Food

American businesses rely on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). This is the UN agency that promotes the protection of intellectual property throughout the world through cooperation among countries in the UN and in collaboration with other international organizations.

Fly much? Business and private air travelers need the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). This UN agency promotes the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world. It sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and regularity, as well as for aviation environmental protection.

Natural disasters and humanitarian crises have been regulars in the news cycle. This is where the World Food Program (WFP) has its greatest impact. WFP brings food to where it is needed, saving the lives of war victims, civil conflict and natural disasters. This UN agency is also present after the emergency passes, using food to help communities rebuild their shattered lives.

I mention these agencies because the U.S. may be forced to withhold funding if the Palestinians push for membership in them. This would bring these agencies into the crosshairs of the political debate and decimate the impact of the UN’s work in these areas. Yes, the UN is the one place where national governments come together to solve the world’s toughest problems in the world. But it’s the everyday influence of UN policies that offer relief to national security concerns, assist American businesses, protect citizens’ safety, and save U.S. taxpayer money with collective global responses to humanitarian problems.

These UN agencies could lose U.S. funding, but more importantly they will lose the U.S. voice and leadership. We need make our financial and diplomatic engagement with the UN a priority in our national debate. This isn’t a time for timid support of the UN – a perfect moment for UNA members and chapters. Let’s get to work.

(Interested in reading more about these UN agencies and others that could be affected? Read a terrific blog post by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy.)

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