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US withdraws from UNESCO, citing anti-Israel bias

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  • France expresses regret

Jude Johnson 

The United States plans to withdraw from UNESCO, citing financial reasons, as well as what it said was anti-Israel bias at the U.N.’s educational, cultural and science organization.

UNESCO was notified Thursday morning of the U.S. intention to withdraw at the end of 2018. The State Department said the United States would like to remain involved as a nonmember observer state.

The withdrawal means the U.S. will halt the arrears it has run-up since it stopped funding the organization in 2011 to protest the admission of the Palestinian Authority as a full member. By the end of this calendar year, the unpaid U.S. bill will amount to $550 million. With no sign that U.S. concerns would be addressed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to pull out.

State Department officials said they hope the withdrawal will help push UNESCO to make changes that would satisfy Washington so the U.S. can resume full membership. Though it will not be able to participate in voting, as an observer the U.S. will remain part of discussions on culture, education, science and communication.

“It sends a strong message that we need to see fundamental reform in the organization, and it raises everyone’s awareness about continued anti-Israel bias,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity under department ground rules.

The United States helped found UNESCO but has been at odds with the organization in recent years. State Department officials cited a 2012 decision not to expel Syria from its human rights committee after the civil war in that country began, and repeated resolutions that refer to Israel as an occupying power.


“The organization’s absurd and shameful resolutions against Israel have consequences,” said Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon. “Today is a new day at the U.N. where there is price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”

The withdrawal, which will take effect at the end of 2018, marks yet another decision by the Trump administration to distance itself from some parts of the international community.

France’s U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, had urged the United States to remain in UNESCO this week, saying the United States “must stay committed to world affairs.”

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, expressed “profound regret” after the State Department announced its decision on Thursday.

“At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations leading these issues,” she said in a statement.


“This is a loss to UNESCO,” she added. “This is a loss to the United Nation family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”

The withdrawal decision comes as UNESCO members are voting on a replacement for Bokova. Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari is leading France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab. Israeli officials and American Jewish groups have expressed concerns about Kawari for what they have said is a record of fostering anti-Semitism.

UNESCO was established after World War II to help promote global cooperation around the flow of ideas, culture and information. UNESCO’s mission includes programs to improve access to education, preserve cultural heritage, improve gender equality and promote scientific advances and freedom of expression.

It is perhaps best known for the World Heritage program, which helps maintain major cultural sites around the globe.

But the United States has at times had an ambivalent relationship with the Paris-based organization. The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 under the Reagan Administration; critical of what it believed was a pro-Soviet Union bias.

Tensions have returned in recent years. Israel recalled its ambassador to the organization last year after some governments in the organization supported a resolution which denounced Israel’s policies on religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This summer, UNESCO members voted to recognize the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site, despite pressure from Israel and the United States. It eventually rejoined in 2002 as part of an effort by the George W. Bush administration to emphasize a message of international cooperation. “America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance and learning,” Bush said at the time.

Bokova, the director-general, said the partnership between the United States and UNESCO “has never been so meaningful,” despite the withholding of U.S. funding.

“Together, we have worked to protect humanity’s shared cultural heritage in the face of terrorist attacks and to prevent violent extremism through education and media literacy,” she said.

She added: “The American poet, diplomat and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish penned the lines that open UNESCO’s 1945 Constitution: ‘Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.’ This vision has never been more relevant.”


France kicks against US decision

The government of France has expressed regret over the US decision to withdraw from UNESCO at a time when international support for this organization is crucial.

The statement from French Ministry of Foreign Affairs obtained by Global Sentinel on Thursday, said that the future of UNESCO is of particular importance to France, the country in which it has its headquarters. France is attached to UNESCO’s critical action and to its areas of expertise, especially in the priority areas of education, the prevention of radicalization and the protection of endangered heritage. Its activities contribute to achieving the shared UN goal of peace.

Part of the statement read: “Under these circumstances, our candidacy for the post of Director-General of UNESCO takes on a new significance. More than ever, UNESCO needs an initiative that resonates with all member states that will restore confidence, overcome political divisions and be dedicated solely to UNESCO’s key missions. This is the initiative that France is now undertaking through the candidacy of Audrey Azoulay. ”

Credits/ Washington Post



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