THE United States is pulling out of UNESCO because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for “fundamental reform” of the United Nations cultural agency.
While US President Donald Trump’s administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal for months, the announcement by the State Department yesterday rocked UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, where an election to choose a new director is under way.
The outgoing UNESCO chief expressed her “profound regret” at the decision and defended the reputation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites.
The US stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh on policy behind the scenes. The US now owes about US$550 million in back payments.
The State Department said the decision will take effect on December 31, 2018, and that the US will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited America’s belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”
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.
In addition, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted.
The lack of staffing and funding plans for UNESCO by the US have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of UNESCO by American officials, including US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.
American officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and that it was not discussed with other countries but was the result of an internal US government deliberation.
The officials said Washington is notably angry over UNESCO resolutions denying Jewish connections to holy sites and references to Israel as an occupying power.
UNESCO’s outgoing director-general, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, called the US departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism.
She said America and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now to better fight “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism.”