11/08/2013 02:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

In Losing UNESCO Vote, U.S. Punishes Own Citizens

Sweeping prisoner executions have kept Iraq prominently placed in national headlines for the past several months. However, one story behind Iraq's struggling judicial system--though quieter and less gruesome--also demands attention.

As the United Nations' leading entity for the promotion of education, science, and culture, UNESCO is charged with, among other things, specific projects that promote stability in Iraq. A prime example is a UNESCO program, set to commence over a year ago, to enhance public confidence in the judiciary and improve accessibility and transparency to the media.

The program would help establish the rule of law and promote stability in a nation whose future profoundly impacts the region and the world. Sadly, it never came to fruition.

The very nation with the most to lose in Iraq--the United States--never made its payments to this program. In fact, for over two years, the U.S. has financially neglected this UNESCO effort and others like it.

And it is about to get worse: Today, the U.S. lost its vote in UNESCO. It is the first time that our nation has lost its vote in any UN organization for failing to pay its dues -- ever.

Two years ago, the U.S. stopped paying its dues to this vital UN agency whose work builds democracy from the roots of society. The reason is because of two misguided and outdated laws passed in the 1990s and aimed at the Palestinians. The laws stated that any UN agency granting full membership to the Palestinian Authority would immediately lose U.S. funding. Thus, when UNESCO member states voted to grant the Palestinians this status in 2011, the U.S. was forced to immediately pull its funding -- 22 percent of UNESCO's operating budget.

We were already behind on U.S. payments then. Today, the U.S. is $240 million in arrears to UNESCO -- no small sum for an agency charged with such massively necessary nation-building.

Ironically, the law was created to put the Palestinians in a box where they could not vote, and could not exercise a voice over UNESCO's direction. Right or wrong, it did not work. Yet, through our inaction to correct this law, the U.S. has placed itself in that very same box. The administrative move at UNESCO today means that the U.S. will remain a member of the agency, but without a vote, and without a voice.

The U.S. is punishing UNESCO, and--worst of all--we are punishing ourselves. In denying payments, we are eliminating key programs--like those to strengthen Iraq's judiciary--and starving an institution that advances freedom and democracy by investing in people. These are vital components to our security in a post 9-11 world. Further, in losing our vote, we are denying ourselves a voice in the direction of programs which truly promote stability.

The U.S. relationship with UNESCO may not have been as prominent in recent headlines, but it is nonetheless hugely important to U.S. citizens. In recent bipartisan polling commissioned by the Better World Campaign, voters were read a short description of the agency's work, and over eight in 10 said that it is important for the U.S. to be a member of UNESCO.

UNESCO's programs are in the clear and direct interest of the United States. However we cannot see them through if we walk away this week. President Obama has no flexibility to waive the law, but Congress can grant him waiver authority to reverse this dangerous and ugly situation. It is imperative that Congress amend or repeal these flawed laws, and give the President the flexibility he needs to protect our interests and maintain our place at the global decision-making table.