Why Does It Matter That The US Just Withdrew From UNESCO?

Posted October 15, 2017

Finally, in 2013, after the U.S. missed several rounds of payments to UNESCO, the organization suspended USA voting rights in its core decision-making bodies. But given that the US already doesn't fund or vote at UNESCO, the actual impact of the move will probably be minimal.

The U.S. decision, announced Thursday, to withdraw from UNESCO over what the State Department calls "anti-Israel bias" and a need for "fundamental reform" is the latest chapter in America's surprisingly contentious relationship with the Paris-based agency best known for its cultural preservation work and list of protected World Heritage sites.

"We hope the USA will take the decision to stay within UNESCO", France's United Nations ambassador, Francois Delattre said in an interview Wednesday. The officials, who remained unnamed, said the United States is angry over UNESCO resolutions denying Jewish connection to holy sites and Israel's rights to Jerusalem.

If your eyes just glazed over, you're not alone - the decision features a trifecta of Definitely Important But Complicated Things (the Israel-Palestine conflict, Trump's foreign policy, and a United Nations agency acronym most of us would be pretty hard pressed to complete).

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UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak has voiced concerns that the United States move could affect the important work of UNESCO. In 2002, George W Bush joined UNESCO again, and in 2011, Barack Obama cut most USA funding to UNESCO due to the organization's recognition of Palestine.

This is not the first time that the USA has withdrawn from UNESCO.

US officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision.

Also on Friday, France's former culture minister Audrey Azoulay was elected to head UNESCO in a cliffhanger vote. As a result, the USA owes more than $500 million to UNESCO, according to Foreign Policy.

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Although Washington supports a future independent Palestinian state, it says this should emerge out of peace talks and it considers it unhelpful for worldwide organisations to admit Palestine until negotiations are complete.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly announced that his country will follow Trump's lead and also withdraw.

What might have hastened this withdrawal decision was the July declaration of the ancient city of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage Site. That makes UNESCO a natural venue for countries that want to engage in ideological grandstanding and symbolic protest votes without actually causing too much chaos in the global system. Today's decision is a turning point for UNESCO. In 2011, under President Barack Obama, the United States stopped paying its UNESCO membership dues after the body voted to make the Palestinian Authority a full member of the organization. The US will become what the United Nations calls a "non-member observer state" in UNESCO: allowed to send representatives to UNESCO meetings but not vote in them.

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