USA pulls out of United Nations cultural body, cites 'anti-Israel' bias

Posted October 13, 2017

UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) head Irina Bokova has said the organization had received an official notification from Washington that the United States will withdraw from the organization.

The United States announced on Thursday that it is pulling out of UNESCO because of what the Trump administration sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for "fundamental reform".

The US withdrawal will become effective at the end of December 2018 - until then it would will remain a full member.

The lack of staffing and funding plans for Unesco by the U.S. have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of Unesco by senior USA officials, including U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. The organization is known for its World Heritage program that protects cultural sites across the globe.

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The country plans to become "a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education".

While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the timing of the State Department's statement Thursday was unexpected.

The US has a long history of contradictions with UNESCO, an worldwide body that is aimed at promoting a respect for the rule of law and human rights through cultural and scientific collaboration.

Tensions have flared again in recent years: in 2011, the United States stopped funding the agency after UNESCO voted to admit the Palestinian Authority as a full member; two years later, the U.S. lost its vote due to these financial cuts.

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The Israel controversy re-ignited this summer after UNESCO named Hebron's city center a Palestinian World Heritage Site. Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley has repeatedly denounced these actions, and said the US was "evaluating" whether or not it should continue as a member of the organization.

The third round saw the breakthrough of French candidate Audrey Azouley, who secured 18 out of 58 votes of the UNESCO Executive Board, sharing top spot with Qatari candidate Hammad bin Al-Kawari. After he was elected but before he became president, Mr. Trump made an extraordinary intervention on the world stage by criticizing the Obama administration's decision not to block a United Nations resolution criticizing Israeli settlements.

UNESCO also works to improve education for girls in poor countries, help them enter scientific fields, defend media freedom and coordinate world knowledge about climate change, among other activities.

The decision follows a string of UNESCO decisions that have drawn criticism from the U.S. and Israel.

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For President Trump and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the recognition of world heritage sites in the Palestinian territories, like Hebron and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the 2015 resolution and another in 2016, showed an anti-Israel bias.