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UNESCO and the U.S. at the Palestinian Impasse

UNESCO and the U.S. at the Palestinian Impasse

February 18, 2014 10:00 am by: Category: Cultural Diplomacy, Economic Diplomacy, Featured, North America, Read, The Exchange Comments Off on UNESCO and the U.S. at the Palestinian Impasse A+ / A-

Can UNESCO use the boomerang pattern to break its impasse with the U.S. over admitting Palestine as a member state?

This is a summary of a more in-depth article that was published in 2013 edition of The Exchange: The Journal of Public Diplomacy. Read the full article here.

In October of 2011, the UN agency for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) accepted Palestine into the organization.  It was the first UN agency to accept Palestine as a member, implicitly recognizing it as a state. The Palestinian flag was raised next to the flags of the 195 states members of UNESCO. However, Palestine’s admission forced the U.S. to withhold its funding to the organization. Following two laws that prohibit funding to any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a member, the U.S. was forced to stop paying its dues, which totaled around 20% of UNESCO’s budget.  The U.S. relationship with UNESCO saw itself affected by an impasse, triggered by the Palestinian efforts to pursue statehood through the UN.

Two years have already passed and the impasse has not come to an end. On one hand, the Obama administration has stated their commitment to UNESCO. They have recognized that the law, far from punishing Palestine, handicaps the U.S., affecting, among other things, American soft power. On the other hand, Congress has been reticent to make modifications to the law. Support to Israel and an unwavering certainty that the law has deterred Palestine from seeking membership in other UN agencies deter Congress members to look for waivers. Meanwhile, UNESCO finds itself in its worst ever financial crisis. Frozen posts and slashed programs have affected the deliver capacity of UNESCO’s wide range of development projects.

Cover-page-001-231x300The U.S.-UNESCO impasse makes an interesting case for UN agencies like UNESCO seeking to influence member states. It also shows that inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) stability can be put in jeopardy by their own member states when they are pushing their interests through diplomatic retaliations or sanctions. In such a scenario, what can IGOs do to confront decisions or political situations with negative repercussions? What strategies can IGOs implement to influence member states’ decisions? These questions are at the backbone of  “UNESCO an the U.S at the Palestinian impasse: Using a Boomerang Pattern to Public Diplomacy.”

The boomerang pattern, conceived by well-known scholars Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, draws from the effects of transnational advocacy groups’ pressure on unresponsive states to defend/aggress human, environmental or indigenous rights. In a nutshell, when NGOs do not find enabling environments to resolve a conflict with their states, NGOs bypass their states, thereby, bringing pressure from international NGOs.

The boomerang pattern can be adjusted to the U.S.-UNESCO impasse. Given Congress’ unwillingness to waive the law and UNESCO’s inability to lobby, the UN agency can apply the boomerang pattern to leverage U.S. non-state actors and potentially transnational non-governmental organizations. However, the characteristics of the impasse, coupled with the weak links between those NGOs involved in UNESCO’s activities in the U.S. and the apparent lack of incentives to persuade Congress, impede the success of local mobilization and transnational support.

Some of the literature about transnational advocacy networks argues that the effectiveness of their support depends on how well developed local advocacy networks are. Conversely, it seems that the network of U.S.-based NGOs involved in UNESCO’s activities are not well connected enough to generate significant support for UNESCO’s case. Additionally, one of the biggest challenges for UNESCO is its lack of familiarity to the U.S. public. The lack of knowledge about UNESCO negatively affects the public perception toward the organization, exacerbating misperceptions of being anti-American or pro-Palestinian.

In conclusion, some of UNESCO’s setbacks for activating the boomerang pattern also shed light on the public diplomacy challenges for UNESCO in the U.S. It seems that incentivizing engagement with non-state actors in the U.S. can create a conducive environment for UNESCO to obtain greater leverage in both a local and global scope, and to finally get back U.S. funding.


photo credit: Remy De La Mauviniere, AP

UNESCO and the U.S. at the Palestinian Impasse Reviewed by on . Can UNESCO use the boomerang pattern to break its impasse with the U.S. over admitting Palestine as a member state? [divide] [box type="info"]This is a summary Can UNESCO use the boomerang pattern to break its impasse with the U.S. over admitting Palestine as a member state? [divide] [box type="info"]This is a summary Rating: 0

About Oscar Castellanos del Collado

Oscar Castellanos del Collado holds a Master of Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California. He produced studies on international affairs in Mexico and France. He has worked as a research assistant in cultural diplomacy, migration, U.S., and Mexico issues. He has also worked as a communications specialist for the UN. He is currently an outreach consultant based in Washington D.C.
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