The State Depart­ment

De­par­ture from U.N.’s cul­tural, sci­en­tific agency to hap­pen at end of 2018


an­nounced that the United States will with­draw from UNESCO over the cul­tural agency’s per­ceived an­tiIs­rael bias.

The United States will with­draw from UNESCO at the end of next year, the State Depart­ment said Thurs­day, to stop ac­cu­mu­lat­ing un­paid dues and make a stand on what it said is anti-Is­rael 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 the United States to en­gage in de­bates and ac­tiv­i­ties, although it will lose its right to vote on is­sues.

The with­drawal fol­lows long­stand­ing con­cerns the United States has had with UNESCO and does not nec­es­sar­ily fore­shadow a fur­ther re­trench­ment of U.S. en­gage­ment with the United Na­tions, where the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been push­ing to bring about struc­tural and fi­nan­cial re­forms.

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

The most im­me­di­ate im­pact is that the United States will halt the ar­rears it has run up since it stopped fund­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2011 to protest UNESCO’s ad­mis­sion of the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries as a full mem­ber. By the end of this year, the un­paid U.S. bill will be $550 mil­lion. With no sign that U.S. con­cerns will be ad­dressed, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son de­cided to pull out af­ter Dec. 31, 2018, 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 United States can re­sume full mem­ber­ship.

“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,” said one of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity un­der depart­ment ground rules.

The United States helped found the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion af­ter World War II but has been at odds with it 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 the po­lit­i­cal left and right, also praised the de­ci­sion. Ne­tanyahu 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, di­rec­tor­gen­eral of UNESCO, ex­pressed “pro­found re­gret” over the 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 agency lead­ing th­ese is­sues,” she said in a state­ment, call­ing it a “loss for mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism.”

The with­drawal marks an­other de­ci­sion by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to dis­tance it­self from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

“The con­tin­ued re­trench­ment of the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion from ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy ef­forts and di­a­logue is deeply con­cern­ing to the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity,” said Rush Holt, head of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence.

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 is lead­ing France’s Au­drey Azoulay and Egyp­tian hope­ful Moushira Khat­tab in the first vot­ing rounds. Is­raeli of­fi­cials and Amer­i­can Jewish groups have ex­pressed con­cerns about Kawari for what they have said is a record of fos­ter­ing an­ti­Semitism.

UNESCO was es­tab­lished to help pro­mote global co­op­er­a­tion around the flow of ideas, cul­ture and in­for­ma­tion. The agency’s mis­sion in­cludes pro­grams to im­prove ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, pre­serve cul­tural her­itage, im­prove gen­der equal­ity and pro­mote sci­en­tific ad­vances and free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Af­ter the 1984 with­drawal, for what was de­scribed as proSoviet bias, the United States did not re­join UNESCO un­til 2002, when the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion said it wanted 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.

Bokova said the part­ner­ship between the United States and UNESCO “has never been so mean­ing­ful,” de­spite the with­hold­ing of U.S. fund­ing.

“To­gether, we have worked to pro­tect hu­man­ity’s shared cul­tural her­itage in the face of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and to pre­vent vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism through ed­u­ca­tion and me­dia lit­er­acy,” she said.

She added: “The Amer­i­can poet, diplo­mat and Li­brar­ian of Con­gress, Archibald MacLeish, penned the lines that open UNESCO’s 1945 Con­sti­tu­tion: ‘Since wars be­gin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the de­fences of peace must be con­structed.’ This vi­sion has never been more rel­e­vant.”

More at wash­ing­ton­ news/ post-na­tion


Flags fly at UNESCO’s Paris head­quar­ters. “This is prag­matic, not a grander po­lit­i­cal sig­nal,” John W. McArthur, a fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion.

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