Fresh blow for beleaguered heritage agency Unesco as US withdraws
The United States announced its decision to withdraw from Unesco yesterday, and Israel will follow its departure from the United Nations cultural and educational agency, citing accusations of bias against the Jewish state.
The decision dealt another blow to an organisation that is beset by regional rivalries, accusations of inefficiency and a lack of funds and came as Unesco is due to choose a new chief this week in a bid to revive its fortunes.
After three days of secret balloting that could run until today, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al Kawari and France’s Audrey Azoulay are tied to win the most senior post at the organisation, with Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab in third place.
Two other candidates are trailing.
The US decision to withdraw from the United Nations agency was based on “the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias at Unesco”, the state department said.
However, the US expressed its desire to remain engaged as a permanent observer mission to the UN agency in order to contribute American opinions.
The head of Unesco, Irina Bokova, said she wished “to express profound regret” over the decision by the US to depart.
The withdrawal will take effect on December 31, 2018. The US will remain a full member of Unesco until that time.
Benjamin Netanyahu “welcomes the decision by president (Donald) Trump to withdraw from Unesco. This is a courageous and moral decision because Unesco has become the theatre of the absurd and because instead of preserving history it distorts it,” said the Israeli prime minister’s office yesterday.
Israel has long been at loggerheads with Unesco, particularly over its decision to admit the Palestinians as members in 2011.
In July, the UN body declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered World Heritage site, delighting Palestinians and infuriating Israel.
Mr Netanyahu announced a US $1million cut in funding to the UN, saying the Unesco vote ignored Jewish ties to the site.
It followed a Unesco resolution on Jerusalem in May that
strongly criticised the Jewish state’s occupation of the eastern part of the city.
Foreign Policy magazine said Washington would formally withdraw after the 58-member Unesco executive board selects its new director-general.
The US contributed about US$80 million (Dh293.8m) a year to Unesco, accounting for about a fifth of its budget, but cancelled its contribution in 2011 in protest at the Palestinians being granted full membership.
US president Donald Trump has been critical of the UN, complaining about how much it costs and questioning whether UN-affiliated institutions give value for money.
Former US assistant secretary of state Philip Crowley called the decision “yet another step back by the Trump administration from America’s leadership role”.
Daniel Serwer, another former state department official, who is now at the Middle East Institute said: “Unesco will survive. The US will survive, but American influence will decline, which seems to be the Trump administration’s main objective this week.”
Richard Gowen, of the European Council on foreign relations, called the decision “gesture politics” that allows Mr Trump to “look tough on the UN, but it could backfire by allowing China and other powers to claim that the US is walking away from leadership”.