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US and Israel lose UNESCO voting rights over withheld payments

The United States and Israel have lost their voting rights in UNESCO after they suspended funding to the organization. Both countries suspended contributions to the UN cultural body after Palestine was made a member.

Sources at Paris-based UNESCO said on Friday that both the US and Israel had missed a noon deadline local time on Friday to submit an official justification for non-payment, as well as a plan to pay back outstanding contributions.

Under UNESCO rules, failure to provide the necessary documentation results in an automatic suspension of voting rights.

Both countries stopped funding UNESCO two years ago after the admission of the Palestinian territories into the body. US laws say funding must be withheld from organizations that recognize Palestine.

Neither country had "presented the necessary documentation this morning to avoid losing their right to vote," a diplomatic source told the AFP news agency.

The suspension of contributions from the US has a significant effect on the agency, which receives some $80 million (60 million euros) a year. That figure is 22 percent of UNESCO's overall budget, resulting in a financial crisis for the agency that has forced it to limit or end altogether American-led initiatives, including Holocaust education and tsunami research.

Washington expressed regret about the loss of voting rights. "We regret that today the United States lost its vote in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) General Conference," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Psaki, however, noted that "a loss of vote in the General Conference is not a loss of US membership." She said the United States intends to continue to participate actively.

'Difficult to disengage'

A declining US presence within the organization is seen as damaging to Washington's projection of "soft power," inhibiting efforts to tackle extremism through education and to promote gender equality and press freedom.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said she regretted the declining influence of Washington within the organization.

"I regret to say that I'm seeing, in these last two years ... a declining American influence and American involvement," Bokova said. "I can't imagine how we could disengage with the United States at UNESCO. We are so intertwined."

UNESCO is best known for its program to protect global cultures through its list of World Heritage sites, which includes the Statue of Liberty and Mali's Timbuktu. However, its core mission is to act as an anti-extremist body. The organization was cofounded by the US in 1946.

UNESCO is currently involved in programs to teach girls to read, alleviate poverty and promote freedom of expression.

The loss of voting rights comes as the US seeks to broker peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

rc/hc (AFP, AP, Reuters)