June 29, 2018 | Policy Brief

U.S. Withdrawals Carry Financial Costs for UN Agencies

June 29, 2018 | Policy Brief

U.S. Withdrawals Carry Financial Costs for UN Agencies

The recent U.S. withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will not only damage the body’s legitimacy, it could also harm its finances. As Congress prepares to slash its budget, the UNHRC is likely to join the ranks of UNESCO and UNRWA, which allowed anti-Israel forces to undermine their stated missions. 

In 2017, the UN allocated $21.9 million of its main budget – known as its “regular budget” – to the Human Rights Council. The U.S. provides 22 percent of the regular budget, so it effectively provides the UNHRC about $5 million. The U.S. cannot force the UN to reduce the UNHRC budget by that amount, but the UN would have to cut elsewhere if it wants to preserve the council’s funding.

Earlier this year, the White House withheld funding from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose mission is to assist Palestinian refugees, yet has a long record of promoting hostility to Israel and perpetuating the conflict by inflating the number of refugees on its books. Instead of its annual $365 million contribution to UNRWA, the U.S. has given it only $60 million this year. The shortfall has prompted a financial crisis, according to UNRWA’s top official. Since the U.S. contribution to UNRWA does not pass through the UN’s general budget, the impact of the cut was direct and immediate.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has endured financial hardship since 2011 because it let itself be drafted into the Palestinian Authority’s aggressive push for international recognition without negotiating with Israel – known as the “Palestine 194” campaign (a reference to joining the UN as its 194th member). The “State of Palestine” became a full member of UNESCO in 2011 and a non-member observer of the UN General Assembly in 2012.

As a result of UNESCO’s decision to grant membership to the notional Palestinian state, the U.S. has not funded the agency since 2011, costing it around $85 million a year. The cuts were mandatory because Clinton-era U.S. laws prohibit funding UN agencies or affiliates that grant “full membership” to non-states. The Trump administration announced in late 2017 that it would withdraw from the body by some time next year.

Despite the U.S. policy of defunding these agencies in response to Palestinian accession, the Palestinians have applied to join dozens of international treaties and bodies since 2014. Just last month, PA President Mahmoud Abbas requested to join two new UN agencies, the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Industrial Development Organization. UNCTAD’s $68 million of funding through the UN’s regular budget includes $16 million from the U.S.

These and other UN agencies are now facing the choice of whether to support Palestinian membership or to retain American support. UN agencies have already lost nearly $400 million a year because of this. But it was all avoidable. They can still convey to the Palestinian leadership to begin to directly engage with Israel again instead of using the United Nations as a political tool, a strategy that appears to already have diminishing returns.

David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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