U.S. plans to withdraw from UNESCO
Officials cite funding, anti-israel bias in leaving cultural organization
The United States plans to withdraw from UNESCO, citing financial reasons as well as what it said was anti-israel bias at the United Nations’ Educational, Science and Cultural Organization.
UNESCO was notified Thursday morning of the U.S. intention to withdraw at the end of 2018. The State Department said the United States would like to remain involved as a nonmember observer state.
The withdrawal means the U.S. will halt the arrears it has run-up since it stopped funding the organization in 2011 to protest the admission of the Palestinian Authority as a full member. By the end of this calendar year, the unpaid U.S. bill will amount to $550 million. With no sign that U.S. concerns would be addressed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to pull out.
State Department officials said they hope the withdrawal will help push UNESCO to make changes that would satisfy Washington so the U.S. can resume full membership. Though it will not be able to participate in voting, as an observer the U.S. will remain part of discussions on culture, education, science and communication.
“It sends a strong message that we need to see fundamental reform in the organization, and it raises everyone’s awareness about continued anti-israel bias,” a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States helped found UNESCO but has been at odds with the organization in recent years. State Department officials cited a 2012 decision not to expel Syria from its human rights committee after the civil war in that country began, and repeated resolutions that refer to Israel as an occupying power.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the last straw was when UNESCO designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, a Palestinian World Heritage site. Calling UNESCO’S politicization a “chronic embarrassment,” Haley added, “U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”
Haley said the United States will evaluate all U.N. agencies “through the same lens.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision to leave UNESCO “brave” and “moral.” He said he had instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal as well.
“UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd because, instead of preserving history, it distorts it,” he said in a statement.
Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, expressed “profound regret” after the State Department announced its decision.
“At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations leading these issues,” she said in a statement.
“This is a loss to UNESCO,” she added. “This is a loss to the United Nation family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”
The withdrawal decision comes as UNESCO members are voting on a replacement for Bokova. Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-kawari is leading France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egypt’s Moushira Khattab in the first voting rounds.
Israeli officials and U.S. Jewish groups have expressed concerns about al-kawari for what they have said is a record of fostering anti-semitism.
UNESCO was established after World War II to help promote global cooperation around the flow of ideas, culture and information. UNESCO’S mission includes programs to improve access to education, preserve cultural heritage, improve gender equality and promote scientific advances and freedom of expression.
It is perhaps best known for the World Heritage program, which helps maintain major cultural sites around the globe.
The U.S. pulled out of the organization in 1984 for what was described as pro-soviet Union bias, then rejoined in 2002 as part of an effort by the George W. Bush administration to emphasize a message of international cooperation.
“America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance and learning,” Bush said at the time.
Tensions have returned in recent years. Israel recalled its ambassador to the Paris-based organization last year after some governments supported a resolution that denounced Israel’s policies on religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.