UNITED NATIONS: The United States is pulling out of Unesco after repeated criticism of resolutions by the UN cultural agency that Washington sees as anti-Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit.
While the US 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 on Thursday by US officials.
Unesco director-general Irina Bokova, who is Bulgarian, expressed “profound regret” at the decision and said the departure was a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism.
She said the US 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”.
Ms Bokova defended Unesco’s reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism.
She traced the decades-long US ties with Unesco, and noted that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the UN agency.
Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel will also withdraw from the agency, which had become a “theatre of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it”.
He said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organisation in concert with the Americans.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, praised Washington’s move as heralding “a new day at the UN, where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel”.
He said: “Unesco has become a battlefield for Israel bashing and has disregarded its true role and purpose.
“The organisation’s absurd and shameful resolutions against Israel have consequences.”
Ms 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.
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 programme 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 US 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 US have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of Unesco by senior US officials, including US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
The US pulled out of Unesco in the 1980s because Washington viewed it as mismanaged and used for political reasons, then rejoined it in 2003.
UN, France regret US decision to quit Unesco
The UN and France have voiced deep regrets over the US decision to withdraw from Unesco, the Paris-based UN cultural organisation. The US on Thursday informed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization that it would formally withdraw from the organisation on December 31, 2018 and would seek to remain engaged as a non-member observer state. Later, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres through his spokesperson expressed his deep regret over the decision, “considering the major US role in Unesco since its founding”.
Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement that the US withdrawal would be a loss to the UN and “a loss to multilateralism.” “At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues,” Bokova said.
Meanwhile, UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak expressed his concerns that the US move “could have adverse impacts upon the important work of Unesco”. While emphasising the role played by the US in multilateral cooperation, Lajcak stressed the need for its continued engagement in the work of Unesco. Echoing the UN, France also voiced its regret over the US decision to withdrawal “at a time when international support for this organisation is crucial”.
France’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Agnes Romatet-Espagne said “the future of Unesco is of particular importance to France”, while reiterating Paris’ commitment to the UN cultural agency’s “critical actions” that contribute to achieving the UN goal of peace. At the UN Headquarters in New York, French Ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre asked the US not to leave Unesco. He said “we need an America that stays committed to world affairs”.