US quits UNESCO, cit­ing anti-Is­rael bias

The Mercury News Weekend - - NEWS - By Eli Rosen­berg

The United States will with­draw from UNESCO — the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion — at the end of next year, the State Depart­ment said Thurs­day, in or­der to stop ac­cu­mu­lat­ing up paid dues and make a stand on what it said is an­tiIs­rael bias at the U.N.’s ed­u­ca­tional, sci­ence and cul­tural or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In no­ti­fy­ing UNESCO of the de­ci­sion Thurs­day morn­ing, the State Depart­ment said it would like to re­main in­volved as a non­mem­ber ob­server state. That will al­low to United States to re­main en­gaged in de­bates and ac­tiv­i­ties, though it will lose its right to vote on is­sues.

The with­drawal of the United States, a found­ing mem­ber of the or­ga­ni­za­tion af­ter World War II, deals a sym­bolic blow. But it does not nec­es­sar­ily fore­shadow a fur­ther re­trench­ment of U. S. en­gage­ment with the United Na­tions, which the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been push­ing to bring about stru­tu­ral and fi­nan­cial re­forms.

“This is prag­matic, not a grander po­lit­i­cal sig­nal,” said John McArthur, a fel­low in the Global Econ­omy and De­vel­op­ment pro­gram at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and an ad­viser to the UN Foun­da­tion.

The most im­me­di­ate im­pact is that the U.S. will halt the ar­rears it has run up since it stopped fund­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2011 to protest ad­mit­ting Pales­tine 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 af­ter Dec. 31, 2017, when the un­paid bal­ance will top $600 mil­lion.

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.

“It sends a strong mes­sage thatwe need to see fun­da­men­tal re­form in the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and it raises ev­ery­one’s aware­ness about con­tin­ued anti-Is­rael bias,” said one of­fi­cial, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity un­der depart­ment rules.

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 this sum­mer 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, “Just as we said in 1984 when Pres­i­dent Rea­gan with­drew from UNESCO, 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.” Other Is­raeli of­fi­cials, from both left and right, also praised the de­ci­sion. Ne­tanyahu said he had in­structed the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs to pre­pare for Is­rael’s with­drawal.

Irina Bokova, di­rec­tor­gen­eral of UNESCO, ex- pressed “pro­found re­gret” over the de­ci­sion.

UNESCO is per­haps best known for the World Her­itage pro­gram, which helps main­tain ma­jor cul­tural sites around the globe. But it runs a wide range of in­ter­na­tional pro­grams. It trains Afghan po­lice of­fi­cers how to read and write, and is the only U.N. agency that has a pro­gram to teach the his­tory of the Holo­caust.

The with­drawal de­ci­sion comes as UNESCO mem­bers are vot­ing on a re­place­ment for Bokova. Qatar’s Ha­mad bin Ab­du­laziz al-Kawari — op­posed by Is­raeli of­fi­cials and Amer­i­can groups — is lead­ing France’s Au­drey Azoulay and Egyp­tian hope­ful Moushira Khat­tab in the first vot­ing rounds.

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