The United States said Thursday it is withdrawing from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural and educational agency, complaining about how it is run and about what Washington described as bias against Israel.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization and continuing anti-Israel bias,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The withdrawal of the United States, which provides a fifth of UNESCO’s funding, is a severe blow for the Paris-based organization, which began work in 1946 and is known for designating World Heritage sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the Grand Canyon National Park.
Under UNESCO rules, the withdrawal would be effective the end of December 2018. Until that time, the United States, which provides around $80 million US to UNESCO annually, will remain a full member.
The United States had cancelled its substantial budget contribution to UNESCO in 2011 to protest a decision to grant the Palestinians full membership.
The organization, which employs around 2,000 people worldwide, most of them based in Paris, has long been the object of criticism over its use of resources and resolutions that have been perceived by Israel and other countries as biased.
Director general Irina Bokova expressed disappointment at the U.S. decision.
“At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States 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.”
UNESCO is in the process of selecting a new chief, whose priority will be to revive its fortunes.
The U.S. move underscores the skepticism expressed by U.S. President Donald Trump about the need for the United States to remain engaged in multilateral bodies. The president has touted an “America first” policy, which puts U.S. economic and nationalist interests ahead of international commitments.
Since Trump took office, the United States has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, withdrawn from the Paris climate deal and opened up a renegotiation of NAFTA, the decades old trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. Trump has also called NATO obsolete, though he has since backtracked on that.
In a statement, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said the “outrageous” designation of the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as part of Palestinian territory were major factors in the U.S. decision.
“The purpose of UNESCO is a good one. Unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment. The Tomb of the Patriarchs decision was just the latest in a long line of foolish actions, which includes keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protesters,” Haley said.
“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.”
‘It’s not just about money’
Diplomats expressed concern about the loss of U.S. engagement.
“The absence of the United States 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 United States, such as education and culture,” a UNESCO-based diplomat said.
For differing reasons, Britain, Japan and Brazil are among states that have yet to pay their dues for 2017.
After three days of secret balloting that could run until Friday, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France’s Audrey Azoulay are tied to win the top post at the organization, with Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab in third. Two other candidates trail.
Voting lasts over a maximum five rounds. If the two finalists end level, they draw lots.