Irina Bokova, Unesco director-general, says Unesco is dedicated to fighting anti-semitism and genocide © Reuters
The US is pulling out of Unesco, the UN agency dedicated to education and culture, citing an alleged anti-Israeli bias at the organisation, in the latest Trump administration assault on multilateral institutions.
The US state department said the decision also reflects US concerns with mounting arrears and the need for fundamental reform at the organisation.
“This decision was not taken lightly,” said spokeswoman Heather Nauert, adding the US would seek non-member observer status once it withdraws on December 31.
Irina Bokova, Unesco director-general, expressed “profound regret” at the US decision and described it as a loss for the UN and multilateralism.
Hours after the US announcement, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country would also withdraw from the organisation.
The Trump administration has made a habit of impugning alliances and international trade treaties, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership and putting pressure on Nafta, a free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. Mr Trump has censured Nato allies, announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and cast the future of a seven-party global nuclear deal with Iran into doubt.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said following the Unesco announcement that Mr Trump had found his foreign policy theme, naming it “The Withdrawal Doctrine”.
Mr Trump had praised the “truly noble goals“ of the UN last month as he threw his weight behind a UN reform initiative, saying he wanted to “Make the United Nations Great”, a riff on his own election campaign slogan. But he also argued for budget cuts and a management overhaul.
Mr Trump is also seeking to deliver peace between Israel and the Palestinians in a bid for what he has described as “the toughest deal of all”. His administration earlier this year threatened to withdraw from the UN human rights council, citing a similar anti-Israeli bent alongside widespread hypocrisy.
Previous administrations also have an uneven relationship with the Paris-based UN body, which engages in diverse events, from promoting International Jazz Day at the White House to fighting anti-Muslim racism in schools, and preserving historic monuments and cultural sites across the world.
The Reagan administration withdrew from Unesco in the 1980s, citing Soviet bias. The US has also withheld funding from the organisation, which promotes global literacy, scientific co-operation and historic preservation, since 2011 when it recognised Palestine as a state. Washington owes Unesco more than $500m in unpaid dues as a result and at a time when the US state department faces cuts of as much as a third to its budget.
Unesco drew fire last year for condemning Israel’s “aggressions” against Muslims’ access to the holiest site in Jerusalem, called the Temple Mount by Jews and which Muslims call the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), home of al-Aqsa mosque.
The Unesco resolution referred to the site only by its Arabic name and portrayed Israel as an occupying power. Israel recalled its ambassador to Unesco as a result.
Ms Bokova rejected accusations that Unesco is biased against Israel, saying the body is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and genocide. It also established a special envoy for Holocaust education.
“[T]he rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security, to counter racism and anti-Semitism, to fight ignorance and discrimination,” said Ms Bokova in a statement on Thursday.
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