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U.S. halts UNESCO funding over Palestinian vote

by Susan Cornwell, Reuters

October 31, 2011 | 1:02 pm

Delegates take part in the vote at the UNESCO headquarters where the United Nations' cultural agency decided to give the Palestinians full membership of the body, a vote that will boost their bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations, during the 36th session of UNESCO's General Conference in Paris on Oct. 31. Photo by REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Delegates take part in the vote at the UNESCO headquarters where the United Nations' cultural agency decided to give the Palestinians full membership of the body, a vote that will boost their bid for recognition as a state at the United Nations, during the 36th session of UNESCO's General Conference in Paris on Oct. 31. Photo by REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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 Palestine 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 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full membership of the United Nations on Sept. 23.

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.

“I expect the administration to enforce existing law and stop contributions to UNESCO and any other U.N. agency that enables the Palestinians to short-cut the peace process,” said Representative Kay Granger, the Republican chairwoman of the House committee in charge of foreign aid.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the UNESCO move was “no substitute for negotiations, but it is deeply damaging to UNESCO.”

The laws passed in the 1990s prohibit U.S. funding to any U.N. organization that grants full membership to any group that does not have the “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 group.

The American Jewish group J Street called on Congress to amend U.S. law to preserve American contributions to UNESCO, saying without U.S. support, the group’s work in development and expanding educational opportunities around the globe would be at risk.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told U.S. lawmakers earlier this month that the U.S. government should have the flexibility to decide whether to cut off money for such agencies if they take in the Palestinians.

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

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