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UNESCO head says education, press freedom efforts will be hurt

The U.S. move followed a vote to give membership to the Palestinians

Washington warned UNESCO about the consequences of such a vote

CNN  — 

The withholding of U.S. funding from UNESCO will make it “impossible” for the agency to maintain all its activities that help to educate and inform people in the developing world, Director-General Irina Bokova said Wednesday.

In a statement posted on the website of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Bokova responded to the announcement Monday that the United States won’t pay its dues this year because the agency voted to grant membership to the Palestinians.

“The announced withholding of U.S. dues owed for 2011 will immediately affect our ability to deliver programs in critical areas: achieving universal education, supporting new democracies and fighting extremism,” Bokova said. “So I call on the U.S. administration, Congress and the American people to find a way forward and continue support for UNESCO in these turbulent times.”

She said UNESCO was “encouraged” that the United States will maintain its membership, but added that until the funding issue is resolved, “it will be impossible for us to maintain our current level of activity.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the government warned UNESCO, the Palestinians and the international community that a vote for Palestinian membership would have consequences under U.S. law.

“It is U.S. law that we have to cut off funding in this case. That is what we have done,” Nuland said. “The choice was clear, the choice was made.”

The U.S. government opposes what it calls unilateral moves to establish a Palestinian state, saying such steps go against efforts to restart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution to their long-running conflict.

Monday’s vote by UNESCO was separate from a Palestinian bid for U.N. membership that remains under consideration by members of the Security Council.

Nuland said Monday that the United States would withhold a $60 million payment planned for this month.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to UNESCO said the United States contributes $80 million a year.

The U.S. contribution comprises 22% of the agency’s funding in its regular budget, a spokeswoman for UNESCO said.

Bokova’s statement said that in the current climate of economic crisis and social transformation, UNESCO’s “vital work to promote global stability and democratic values is in America’s core interests.”

She called the United States a “critical partner” in UNESCO’s work, and said the required withholding of funds as required by U.S. law “will weaken UNESCO’s effectiveness and undermine its ability to build free and open societies.”

In particular, Bokova said, U.S. funding helps UNESCO develop free and competitive media in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, and teach thousands of police officers in Afghanistan to read and write.

“UNESCO literacy program in other areas of conflict give people the critical thinking skills and confidence they need to fight violent extremism,” she said. “To sustain the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring, UNESCO is training journalists to cover elections objectively.”

In addition, UNESCO protects freedom of expression around the world, is the only U.N. agency with a mandate to promote Holocaust education worldwide, and promotes scientific development such as expanding an ocean-based tsunami warning system that saved “tens of thousands of lives” after the Japan earthquake earlier this year.