Saturday, November 19, 2011

Meeting of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO

Eric Woodard and Kelly Siekman from the State Department addressing the Board
Board members shown on right are Roger Coate, Patrice Lyons and Mary Futrell
A meeting of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO took place on Friday, November 18, 2011.

Kelly Siekman, the Director of the Office of UNESCO Affairs in the State Department, and Eric Woodard, the Chair of U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, provided the Board with a detailed briefing on the recent General Conference of UNESCO. Their discussion centered on the vote by the General Conference to admit Palestine to membership in UNESCO and its implications. They emphasized that, while the law requires the United States Government to withhold our contribution to UNESCO, the United States remains a member of the Organization and that the U.S. delegation to UNESCO in Paris and the related office in the State Department in Washington remain fully staffed and active. Under the law, both the assessed and the voluntary contributions to UNESCO are now being withheld. Since they have been authorized and appropriated by the Congress, the funds are currently being held by the State Department, but are subject to being reprogrammed for other purposes; currently no such action is contemplated.

The Obama administration remains convinced that UNESCO is a worthwhile organization useful to U.S. foreign policy interests. The media coverage of the Palestinian vote generated considerable interest in the United States, both by supporters and by opponents of UNESCO and U.S. membership in UNESCO. The State Department is investigating the complex issues of domestic U.S. law and international law involved in the admission of Palestine to UNESCO membership and in the withholding of U.S. funds. (Palestine will not be a member state of UNESCO until it files is accession documents, but the Congress is taking the vote of the General Conference as defining the intent of the Organization.)

The United States delegation lobbied against admission of Palestine but found it difficult to convince the delegates of other nations, although a great many abstained from the vote. Not surprisingly, it has been difficult to explain the complex domestic politics in the United States underlying our positions in this matter; the Constitutionally defined ability of the Congress to control funding and of the President to control foreign policy -- a situation underlying the current situation -- is perhaps poorly understood abroad.

Other Business

Two Board members were in Paris at the time of the General Conference and they too reported on the event. The impressions included great concern by members of the UNESCO Secretariat about the cuts and uncertainty caused by the U.S. withholding of funds, and disappointment of other delegations with the position taken by the United States with respect to the right of Palestine to membership in UNESCO.

The main focus of the rest of the Board meeting was a revision of the Bylaws of Americans for UNESCO. The revisions included an expansion of the membership of the Board and its Executive Committee and separation of the position of Secretary-Treasurer of the AU into two positions - Secretary and Treasurer.

The meeting marked the retirement of Nicole Varchaver who served for many years as a secretary to Americans for UNESCO, rendering a huge service to AU. We will miss her dedicated service, her cheerful demeanor, and indeed her presence.

The Board meeting offered an opportunity for members to meet Charles Prince who has become an intern for Americans for UNESCO. Paul Danaj who has been serving as intern will reduce his hours of service as he has accepted a position at the Department of State.

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