The United States and Israel officially quit the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day, accusing the body of “anti-Israel bias”.
The Trump administration actually initiated this withdrawal over a year ago, in October 2017, and was followed soon after by Israel. In a statement announcing its withdrawal, Israel called the US administration's decision “courageous and moral” and accused UNESCO of becoming a “theatre of the absurd”.
The Paris-based organization previously criticized Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem and granted full membership to Palestine in 2011 even while the US opposed any move by UN bodies to recognize the Palestinians as a state, insisting that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal. Since then, the US had been calling for “fundamental reform” in the agency.
When UNESCO appeared to take no action in this direction, the Trump administration became impatient enacting what many consider to be a major catastrophe for the Paris-based organization, co-founded by the US after World War II to foster peace. Irina Bokova, the outgoing UNESCO head, called the US withdrawal a “loss to multilateralism”, saying she is convinced that “UNESCO has never been so important for the US, or the US for UNESCO.”
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said through a spokesperson that he “regrets this development deeply”. Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party comprising mostly secular intellectuals, said this demonstrates America’s “complete and total bias” towards Israel. He went on to say that it appears as if Israel is dictating US policy not only in the Middle East but also in international organizations, making it virtually impossible for the US to act as a mediator between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
UNESCO is best known for its work to preserve heritage, including maintaining its list of World Heritage sites and programmes to promote education in developing countries.
“UNESCO is about promoting our ideals and values through culture, education and science,” Francois Delattre, France's UN ambassador, said in New York, adding, “We need an America that stays committed to world affairs.”
While Russia agreed that UNESCO has become too politicized, their foreign ministry said it regretted the decision, adding that the move would disrupt a number of important projects planned by UNESCO.
UNESCO said, though, the withdrawals will not significantly affect the organization financially, since it has been dealing with a funding slash since 2011 when both Israel and the US stopped paying dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state. Since then officials estimate that the US – which accounted for around 22 per cent of the total budget – has accrued $600m in unpaid dues, which was one reason for President Trump's decision to withdraw. Israel owes an estimated $10m.
Meanwhile, in May 2018, UNESCO voted on a resolution that criticized Israel's occupation of the eastern part of Jerusalem. Then, in July, the organization declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered World Heritage site, after which Netanyahu announced a US$1m cut in funding to the UN, saying the UNESCO vote ignored Jewish ties to the site.
Officials say that many of the reasons the US cited for the withdrawal do not apply any more, noting that since the two countries stopped paying, all 12 resolutions on the Middle East passed at UNESCO have been consensual among Israel and Arab member states.
Sources: The Washington Post, Reuters