The State Department has announced on Thursday the United States will withdraw from membership in United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) effective 31st of December of 2018. A few hours later, Israel announced it would follow the US lead and prepare for withdrawal from the international body.
In an official statement, the State Department said it would establish a permanent mission to UNESCO, as a non-member observer state. With that mechanism, Washington plans to “contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization.”
“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 at UNESCO,” Heather Nauert, US State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the move, calling it “courageous and moral”.
“UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd. Instead of preserving history, it distorts it. I have instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO alongside the United States,” he said.
Secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, Mustafa Barghouti, described Washington’s move as “counterproductive and shameful”.
“Sooner or later they will see Palestine in every UN agency. Will the US respond to that by withdrawing from the WHO or the World Intellectual Property Organization? They will be hurting only themselves,” he told Al Jazeera.
The United States were expected to make this decision after repeatedly voicing criticism of UNESCO-passed resolutions which were perceived by the current administration as anti-Israel. The US have already stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 after Palestinian Authority’s succesful membership bid, consequentially losing its right to vote in the international body.
According to the New York Times, this decision by US Congress was based on laws from 1990 and 1994, prohibiting payments to any UN agencies or organization that grant the Palestinian Authority a full membership. US President Donald Trump’s Administration also had no provisions in next year’s budget for this purpose, The Time wrote.
Bokova: A loss to UNESCO
The US withdrawal was announced ahead of the election for the new Director-General of UNESCO. The current holder of that position, Irina Bokova, expressed her regret that the US was leaving the organization.
“This is a loss to UNESCO. This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism. UNESCO’s task is not over, and we will continue taking it forward, to build a 21st century that is more just, peaceful, equitable, and, for this, UNESCO needs the leadership of all States,” she said in a lengthy statement.
Bokova says that Washington’s decision stripped UNESCO of 23 US cultural heritage sites, along with over 30 natural biosphere reserves. US has already withdrawn from UNESCO once, for similar reasons. In 1980’s, Washington stepped out of the international organization, saying it was “mismanaged and served for political pressure.” They rejoined in 2005.
The race for leadership position in the UN’s cultural body came down to five candidates after a third round of voting on Wednesday, leaving former culture ministers France’s Audrey Azoulay and Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari as the frontrunners. Both of them won 18 votes.
Other candidaties include Egyptian diplomat Moushira Khattab, China’s Tang Qian with five, and Lebanon’s Vera El Khoury. Thirty votes are needed for final decision.
Israel has suspended ties with UNESCO in the October of last year, after the UN cultural agency adopted a resolution ignoring Jewish cultural and historical ties to the Temple Mount, referring to the compound only by its Islamic names, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” and defining it exclusively as “a Muslim holy site of worship.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement on Wednesday, accusing the potential UNESCO Qatari head of endorsing and sponsoring “projects and programs with blatant anti-Semitic content.”
“Sadly, the group of countries that Qatar and Mr. Al-Kawari join in these efforts have, in recent years, hijacked the UNESCO agenda to introduce and adopt abhorrent resolutions denying the Jewish and Christian religious connections to holy sites in Israel and pushing baseless claims of Israeli acts to destroy Muslim holy sites under its protection,” the statement said.
Amid the vote for new Director-General, UNESCO delayed the latest vote on a pair of anti-Israel resolutions on Wednesday, marking the first time no anti-Israel resolutions were passed at a UNESCO session since 2011.
UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions around the world.