Friday, March 09, 2012

Amend the Foreign Relations Authorization Act

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her defense of the international relations budget briefly discussed the request for a change in a controversial section of the Authorization Act. The two decades old section calls for the United States to withhold its contributions to any agency of the United Nations family that admits Palestine as a member state; it does not follow the customary practice of allowing the president to waive the prohibition if he finds its application at a specific time is contrary to U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The purpose of the section was to encourage the Palestinians to negotiate with Israelis to achieve a lasting peace in the region. It was felt that premature recognition by United Nations agencies of a Palestinian state might be counterproductive to that purpose. It seems obvious that if and when a two state solution is achieved, Palestine will merit and receive membership in the United Nations system.

The effectiveness of the section is largely due to the fact that assessed contributions to United Nations agencies are based on a negotiated formula in which the contribution of each member state is roughly proportional to the share of the global GDP represented by that member state's economy. Thus the United States pays something on the order of one quarter to one fifth of the regular budget of each agency. The United States withholding contributions results in an immediate financial crisis for the agency involved.

The issue has become visible this year because the Palestinian Authority has sought membership in the United Nations and UNESCO, and last year was voted membership by the General Conference of UNESCO. The United States is consequently withholding contributions from UNESCO, and UNESCO is dealing with a financial crisis as a result.

Modification of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act requires action by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and is normally accomplished after a Conference to reconcile differences in the bills passed by the two houses. The process takes time.

Secretary Clinton pointed out that waiver authority would facilitate the United States role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Membership in the United Nations and related bodies would be an incentive to offer to the Palestinians and there might be an advantage were the president to have the power to offer U.S. support for such membership on a timely basis.

Since all major parties to the dispute agree that a two state solution is the most practical alternative, eventual recognition of Palestine as a state seems certain. Indeed, most of the nations of the world have established diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, recognizing it as a de facto state.

Secretary Clinton pointed out that there might be other occasions in which it would be important for the United States to waive the provision. For example, were the World Health Organization to admit Palestine to membership, and were a global pandemic to break out (a new flu pandemic has been a threat for some years based on the avian flu circulating in Asia), then the economic problems caused by U.S. withholding contributions might well mean a much graver threat to the health of Americans.

Other examples seem relevant. Consider for example an interruption of the International Atomic Energy Agency's monitoring of nuclear weapons capabilities, or of the tsunami early warning system organized by UNESCO.

I would encourage the Congress to think more broadly of the advantages to U.S. foreign policy. Oxfam now reports famine conditions in West Africa. Were the World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to be hindered in providing food aid, people would die, and would die in large numbers. While the famine would not reach American tables, would we not want the president to be able to act quickly to assure the food aid flows? Do we really want the president to be unable to assure U.S. contributions to UNICEF, to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and other agencies that protect the most vulnerable people?

I would suggest that any change in the law will be possible only for the presidential administration of the 2013-2017 period, after the presidential election. The electorate will have expressed its preference by that time, and the change would only empower the next president chosen by the people.

I strongly strongly favor the ammendment.

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