The United States announced Thursday it is pulling out of the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural agency because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for "fundamental reform" in the agency. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit.
While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the timing of the US State Department's statement was unexpected. The Paris-based agency's executive board is in the midst of choosing a new chief — with Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari leading the heated election heading into today’s final vote.
Outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova expressed "profound regret" at the US decision and tried to defend UNESCO's reputation. The organisation is best known for its World Heritage programme to protect cultural sites and traditions, but also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust's horrors, and to defend media freedom.
Bokova called the Washington’s planned departure a loss for "the United Nations family" and for multilateralism. The US and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now with "the rise of violent extremism and terrorism," she said.
The United States stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. The US now owes about US$550 million in back payments.
In a statement, the US State Department said the decision will take effect December 31, 2018, and that the US will seek a "permanent observer" status instead. It cited US belief in "the need for fundamental reform in the organisation."
Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel also plans to withdraw from the agency, saying it had become a "theatre of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it."
Israel has been irked by resolutions that diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and have instead named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.
Praising Trump's decision as "brave and moral," Netanyahu said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare for Israel's withdrawal from the organisation in concert with the Americans.
'Price to pay.' Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, also praised Washington's move as heralding "a new day at the UN, where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel."
"The United States stands by Israel and is a true leader for change at the UN," Danon said. "The alliance between our two countries is stronger than ever."
US officials said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries. The officials were not authorised to be publicly named discussing the issue.
Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, called UNESCO's July designation of Hebron's Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian territory the latest of many "foolish actions" that had made the agency "a chronic embarrassment."
Haley also criticised UNESCO for "keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protesters."
The United States has pulled out of UNESCO before. The Ronald Reagan administration did in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003.
The State Department informed Bokova it intends to stay engaged at UNESCO as a non-member "observer state" on "non-politicised" issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.
"We will be carefully watching how the organisation and the new director-general steers the agency," Charge d'Affaires Chris Hegadorn, the ranking US representative to UNESCO, told The Associated Press. "Ideally, it steers it in way that US interests and UNESCO's mandate will converge."
UNESCO's 58-member executive board plans to select Bokova's successor from among three finalists remaining from the field of seven candidates under consideration at the beginning of the week.
Along with al-Kawari, Qatar's former culture minister, the finalists are Audrey Azoulay, a former culture minister in France, and former Egyptian government minister Moushira Khattab. The board's pick then goes to the full UNESCO general assembly next month for final approval.