U.S. to pull out of UNESCO amid Palestinian tensions

Associated Press

PARIS (October 12, 2017) — U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that the United States is pulling out of UNESCO, after repeated criticism of resolutions by the U.N. cultural agency that Washington sees as anti-Israel.

The director of UNESCO is expressing “profound regret” at the U.S. government’s decision to pull out of the U.N. cultural agency because of what’s seen as longstanding anti-Israel bias.

Director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement that the departure is a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism. She said the U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now because “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security.”

A native of Bulgaria, Bokova defended UNESCO’s reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism. She traced the decades-long U.S. ties with UNESCO, and noted that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the U.N. agency.

Bokova’s two terms as director have been deeply scarred by the 2011 UNESCO vote to include Palestine as a member, funding troubles and repeated resolutions seen as anti-Israel.

While the U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member in 2011, the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office at its Paris headquarters and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. The withdrawal was confirmed Thursday by U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to be publicly named discussing the decision. It was not clear when the move would be formally announced.

The decision comes as the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is voting to choose a new director this week, in tense balloting overshadowed by the agency’s funding troubles and divisions over Palestinian membership.

Many saw the vote to include Palestine as evidence of long-running, ingrained anti-Israel bias within the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.

UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions around the world. The agency also works to improve education for girls in desperately poor countries and in scientific fields, to promote better understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and to defend media freedom, among other activities.

The Trump administration has been preparing for a likely withdrawal for months, and a decision was expected before the end of the year, according to U.S. officials. Several diplomats who were to have been posted to the mission this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs.

In addition, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted.

The lack of staffing and funding plans for UNESCO by the U.S. have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of UNESCO by senior U.S. officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

The U.S. pulled out of UNESCO in the 1980s because Washington viewed it as mismanaged and used for political reasons, then rejoined it in 2003.

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