Britain stresses Unesco commitment after USA withdraws over Israel bias

Sheri Evans
October 13, 2017

The Trump administration announced on Thursday that it would withdraw from Unesco, the United Nations cultural organization, after years of America distancing itself because of what it called the group's "anti-Israel bias".

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 decision "reflects US concerns with mounting arrears" at the United Nations entity, as well as what she called "continuing anti-Israel bias". The withdrawal goes into effect at the end of 2018. It's best known for its World Heritage list.

As part of the decision, the United States notified UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of the intent to withdraw and become a permanent observer of the body instead.

"Universality is critical to UNESCO's mission to strengthen global peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity", she added, noting that UNESCO would continue to build a more just, peaceful, equitable 21st century. According to Foreign Policy, the USA pays tens of millions in annual dues to UNESCO and also owes the agency over $500 million as a result of its 2011 funding cuts. Various efforts by President Barack Obama to overturn the legal restriction narrowly failed in Congress, and the United States lost its vote at the organization after two years of nonpayment, in 2013.

"The US relationship with Unesco is a matter for them".

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The United States - one of the body's founding members - has withdrawn once before under president Ronald Reagan, who quit in 1984 over alleged financial mismanagement and anti-US bias in some of its policies.

Bokova released a statement in light of the news. "It's very, very regrettable".

Calling the agency's work "key to strengthen the bonds of humanity's common heritage in the face of forces of hatred and division", she noted the value of World Heritage cites in the U.S., such as the Statue of Liberty, as being not just as a defining United States symbol but that it speaks for people across the world. "Partnership between UNESCO and the United States was so deep and strong because it was based on shared values", she said. It has always worked against anti-Semitism and to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, Ms. Bokova said. The decision to withdraw is actually not unprecedented.

US officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries. The department also voiced concerns about an anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.

The country plans to become "a non-member observer state in order to contribute USA 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".

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