This morning, the US Department of State announced its decision to withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations’ Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization. Department officials stated the decision was primarily due to financial reasons as well as an anti-Israel bias within the organization.
The decision will take effect at the end of 2018. A statement from the US Department of State added that the US will “seek to remain engaged”, but will “act as a non-member observer in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise”. The state department said it was also concerned about mounting financial arrears at UNESCO, explaining that the agency needed to be reformed.
This decision marks another move by the United States to distance itself from parts of the international community.
UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, announced she had received formal notification of withdrawal from the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. In a Thursday statement, Bokova expressed her “profound regret” over the decision. “This is not just about World Heritage,” she said, describing the withdrawal as “a loss to both the organization and the US”.
UNESCO was established after World War II to help promote the free flow of information. It is perhaps best known for the World Heritage program, which helps preserve cultural sites of import around the globe. The agency is known for designating world heritage sites such as Syria’s Palmyra and the US Grand Canyon.
The United States, however, has had a complicated relationship with the Paris-based organization in recent years. The US government stopped paying its dues in 2011 to protest against the admission of Palestine as a full member. Many saw the vote to include Palestine as evidence of long-running, ingrained anti-Israel bias within the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.
US President Donald Trump has criticized what he sees as a disproportionate contribution by the US to UN institutions. The US funds 22% of the UN’s regular budget and 28% of UN peacekeeping. The Trump administration has been preparing for a withdrawal for months, and a decision was expected before the end of the year, according to US officials. Several diplomats who were to have been posted to the mission this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs.
The US previously withdrew from UNESCO in the 1980’s under President Ronald Reagan, who viewed the organization as mismanaged and used for political reasons. The nation rejoined in 2003 under George W. Bush.
UNESCO has called Trump’s decision a loss to the “United Nations family” and to multilateralism.
UPDATE: As of 4:00 PM on Thursday, October 12, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that Israel plans to follow suit and withdraw from UNESCO as well. Israel called the US administration’s decision “courageous and moral” and accused UNESCO of becoming a “theatre of the absurd”.
“The Prime Minister instructed foreign ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organization alongside the United States”, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
This development demonstrates the US administration’s “complete and total bias” towards Israel, says Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party comprised mostly of secular intellectuals.
“Sooner or later they will see Palestine in every UN agency”, Barghouti added, “Will the US respond to that by withdrawing from the WHO or the World Intellectual Property Organization? They will be hurting only themselves”.
The US opposes any move by UN bodies to recognize the Palestinians as a state, insisting that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.