Due to an “anti-Israeli bias” in the U.N. agency, the U.S. announced that it would withdraw from UNESCO at the end of 2018, a move that echoes the Trump’s administration’s push for increased American independence from the United Nations.
Headquartered in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is dedicated to “building peace in the minds of men and women,” as it is the mind in which war begins. The organization promotes reforms for increased literacy, freedom of the press and cultural diversity, among others, and is famously charged with designating World Heritage Sites. In recent years, the U.S. has been distancing itself from the agency, which it believes has become increasingly politicized. Since 2011, in response to an overwhelming majority vote to recognize Palestine as a member, the United States has withheld its $80-million annual funding, 22 percent of the agency’s operating budget. In part, the decision to withdraw from the 195-member group is due to the country’s mounting outstanding fees that, today, total over $500 million.
This week, the executive board of UNESCO will vote for a new director-general. Although the U.S. has been barred from voting in the General Conference due to its unresolved debt, the country can vote on the executive board, which will decide between eight nominees for the top position. The two front-runners are former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay and Qatari diplomate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari. Foreign Policy magazine reported that when French President Emmanuel Macron sought out President Trump’s support for Azoulay at the U.N. General Assembly in September, Trump informed Macron of the U.S. plan to withdraw from the agency. On Wednesday, French U.N. ambassador François Delattre publicly urged the U.S. to stay in UNESCO and remain committed to world affairs.
The 2011 UNESCO Palestinian membership decision, which passed with a majority of 107 out of 173 countries, was opposed by both the United States and Israel as a dangerous step to giving the region international legitimacy, obstructing efforts for peace through a one-state solution. This July, UNESCO declared the ancient West Bank city of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage Site, a decision denounced by Israel as denying Judaism’s claim to the land. In 2015, the agency adopted a resolution that criticized Israel for its policies handling religious sites in the contested territories West Bank and East Jerusalem. The lsraeli-Palestinian conflict has been hotly debated in world politics for the last half-century and the U.S. has been a key mitigating power in negotiations between the two sides. For its part, this is not the first time that UNESCO has made highly political and controversial decisions. In the past, the agency has been condemned by both Cubans and the Japanese government for its recognition of Che Guevara and the Nanjing massacre respectively. Once before in 1984, the Reagan administration withdrew America’s membership in UNESCO because of conflicts with the Soviet Union and the country remained absent in the organization until George W. Bush rejoined in 2002. The current U.S. withdrawal will leave an observer group in its place to provide American perspective without participating in decision-making.