The US yesterday announced its withdrawal from the UN’s cultural agency Unesco, citing what it described as anti-Israeli bias at the 71-year-old world heritage body.
The withdrawal of the US, which is meant to provide a fifth of Unesco’s funding, is a major blow for the Paris-based organisation, known for designating World Heritage Sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the Grand Canyon National Park.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at Unesco, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias,” state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Hours later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would quit too.
Unesco director-general Irina Bokova expressed her disappointment: “At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the US to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack,” she said.
“This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”
Washington has already withheld its funding for Unesco since 2011, when the body admitted Palestine as a full member. The US and Israel were among just 14 of 194 members that voted against admitting the Palestinians. Washington’s arrears on its $80mn annual dues since then are now over $500mn.
Although Washington supports a future independent Palestinian state, it says this should emerge out of peace talks and it considers it unhelpful for international organisations to admit Palestine until negotiations are complete.
In recent years, Israel has repeatedly complained about what it says is the body taking sides in disputes over cultural heritage sites in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
“Today is a new day at the UN, where there is price to pay for discrimination against Israel,” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said.
Under Unesco rules, the US withdrawal will become effective as of the end of December 2018.
The organisation, which employs around 2,000 people worldwide, most of them based in Paris, has struggled for relevance as it becomes increasingly hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.
Unesco, whose full name is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, is in the process of selecting a new chief, whose priority will be to revive its fortunes.
The US move underscores the scepticism expressed by President Donald Trump about the need for the US to remain engaged in multi-lateral bodies.
The president has touted an “America First” policy, which puts US economic and national interests ahead of international commitments.
Since Trump took office, the United States has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and withdrawn from the Paris climate deal.
Washington is also reviewing its membership of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, which it also accuses of being anti-Israel.
“The absence of the US or any large country with a lot of power is a loss. It’s not just about money, it’s promoting ideals that are vital to countries like the US, such as education and culture,” a Unesco-based diplomat said, warning that others could follow.
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