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JEDDAH: The US on Thursday announced that it is pulling out of UNESCO because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for “fundamental reform” of the UN cultural agency.
While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal for months, the announcement by the State Department on Thursday rocked UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, where a heated election to choose a new director is underway.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following the US decision, said Thursday that Israel will also withdraw from the agency, saying it had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”
He said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organization in concert with the Americans.
The outgoing UNESCO chief expressed her “profound regret” at the decision and tried to defend the reputation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World
Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.
“After receiving official notification by the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson, as UNESCO director general, I wish to express profound regret at the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from UNESCO,” Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said in a statement sent to Arab News.
“Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity,” Bokova added.
The US stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh on policy behind the scenes. The US now owes about $550 million in back payments.
In a statement, the US State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the US will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited US belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”
Several diplomats who were to have been posted to the mission this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs. In addition, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted.
Bokova said in 2011, when payment of membership contributions was suspended at the 36th session of the UNESCO General Conference, “I said I was convinced UNESCO had never mattered so much for the United States, or the United States for UNESCO.”
She said: “At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.”