US’ Unesco exit cre­ates rip­ples across the world

Is­rael leaves too; mem­ber na­tions fear oth­ers might fol­low suit

The Straits Times - - TOPOF THE NEWS -

WASH­ING­TON/JERUSALEM The United States’ de­ci­sion to pull out of the United Na­tions cul­tural body, Unesco, has sent rip­ples through the strug­gling or­gan­i­sa­tion and rat­tled mem­ber coun­tries which worry oth­ers might fol­low suit.

Hours af­ter the US an­nounced it was walk­ing away from the 195-mem­ber or­gan­i­sa­tion, best known for in­scrib­ing World Her­itage Sites such as the Great Wall of China, Cam­bo­dia’s Angkor Wat and the Sin­ga­pore Botanic Gar­dens, its ally Is­rael said it was with­draw­ing from it too.

The twin move comes af­ter years of bick­er­ing at the or­gan­i­sa­tion over the US’ claim of “anti-Is­rael bias”.

“This de­ci­sion was not taken lightly, and re­flects US con­cerns with mount­ing ar­rears at Unesco, the need for fun­da­men­tal re­form in the or­gan­i­sa­tion, and con­tin­u­ing anti-Is­rael bias at Unesco,” US State De­part­ment spokesman Heather Nauert said.

In 2011, then US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama with­drew fund­ing for Unesco amount­ing to about 22 per cent of its an­nual bud­get, over its ac­cep­tance of Pales­tine as a mem­ber. Wash­ing­ton is against any UN or­gan­i­sa­tion that recog­nises the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries as a state be­fore a ne­go­ti­ated Mid­dle East peace deal is struck.

In July, Unesco de­clared the Old City of He­bron in the oc­cu­pied West Bank an en­dan­gered World Her­itage Site, an­ger­ing Is­rael which an­nounced a US$1 mil­lion (S$1.35 mil­lion) cut in fund­ing to the UN, ac­cus­ing the cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion of ig­nor­ing Jewish ties to the site.

Two months ear­lier, a Unesco res­o­lu­tion point­ing to Is­rael as “the oc­cu­py­ing power” i n the city of Jerusalem, and urg­ing it to re­frain from chang­ing the city’s “char­ac­ter and sta­tus”, also riled the Is­raelis.

“The ab­sence of the United States or any large coun­try with a lot of power is a loss. It’s not just about money; it’s pro­mot­ing ideals that are vi­tal to coun­tries like the United States such as ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture,” a Unesco-based diplo­mat told Reuters, warn­ing that oth­ers could fol­low.

Based on UN reg­u­la­tions, the US with­drawal will be­come ef­fec­tive as of the end of De­cem­ber next year.

The move has trig­gered re­sponses from France, Rus­sia, Bri­tain and oth­ers. Bri­tain pledged to re­main com­mit­ted to Unesco, short for the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

France’s UN am­bas­sador Fran­cois De­lat­tre said that “Unesco is about pro­mot­ing our ideals and val­ues through cul­ture, ed­u­ca­tion and science”, adding that “we need an Amer­ica that stays com­mit­ted to world af­fairs”.

The out­go­ing head of Unesco, Ms Irina Bokova, called the US with­drawal a “loss to mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism”, while Rus­sia’s For­eign Min­istry said the move by the US would dis­rupt a num­ber of im­por­tant projects planned by the UN agency.

The with­drawal threat­ened to over­shadow the elec­tion of a new di­rec­tor-gen­eral yes­ter­day at the or­gan­i­sa­tion, which has 2,000 em­ploy­ees and is strug­gling with a lack of funds and be­set by re­gional ri­val­ries.

Pro­fes­sor Fran­cois Heis­bourg, chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, said the US pull­out could be seen as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump send­ing a sig­nal of sup­port for the Is­raelis while un­der­lin­ing his “Amer­ica First” poli­cies.

“Unesco is an eas­ier tar­get than oth­ers: It’s rel­a­tively small, it doesn’t con­cern vi­tal in­ter­ests, and Unesco has gone much fur­ther than other UN or­gan­i­sa­tions in recog­nis­ing the Pales­tinian au­thor­i­ties,” he told Agence France-Presse.

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Unesco, the United Na­tions cul­tural body, is best known for in­scrib­ing World Her­itage Sites such as the Great Wall of China. The US linked its with­drawal to an “anti-Is­rael bias” at the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

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