The United States and its ally Israel officially withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with the close of the year 2018. The two nations had announced their intention to quit the international organisation in October 2017, accusing it of anti-Israel bias.
Speaking on the decision, the US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert had said that the decision was not taken lightly and it reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation and continuing anti-Israel bias.
The decision comes as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is voting to choose a new director, intense balloting overshadowed by the agency’s funding troubles and divisions over Palestinian membership.
This is the second such instance when the US has withdrawn itself from a major multilateral commitment after President Donald Trump took charge, first being its withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. It underlines Trump’s ‘America First’ policies.
The outgoing Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, called the US withdrawal a 'loss to multilateralism', while UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that he 'regrets this development deeply'.
"At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack," said Bokova.
Impact of the Withdrawal
The withdrawal of the United States, which is meant to provide a fifth of UNESCO’s funding, is a major blow for the Paris-based organisation.
However, the US had already withheld much of its funding for UNESCO since 2011, when the body admitted Palestine as a full member. The United States and Israel were among the 14 nations out of the 194 UNESCO members that voted against admitting Palestinian into the body.
According to estimates, the unpaid dues of the United States reportedly run up to over $500 million, while Israel owes an estimated $10m.
US has pulled out of UNESCO before?
• This is not the first time that the US has walked out of the UN body. The nation previously withdrew itself from the 195-member organisation once before in 1984 under former president Ronald Reagan’s administration, as it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests.
• It was under President George W Bush that the US returned to the body in 2002, but relations soured again in 2011 when Barack Obama pulled the plug on funding to the body after its members voted to admit Palestine as a full member.
• Despite cutting its funding to the agency the US had continued to cooperate with UNESCO since 2011 on programmes of interest to the Americans, such as combating the rise of extremism and perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust.
• US is against any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinian territories as a state, believing that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.
Why does the US recognise Israel and not Palestine?
• Firstly, the United States has recognised Israel since it was established. The State of Palestine declared independence in 1988 during six years of uprising.
• Most of the areas claimed by the State of Palestine have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Hence, neither the US nor Israel recognise Palestine as a state because recognition of statehood also implies a recognition of the state’s borders.
• While Israel defined its borders as suggested by UNSCOP and then by the results of a war with a cease-fire and a cease-fire line (green line) agreement, Palestine does not have a defined border.
• Without a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian governments determining the borders, recognition of Palestine would, in effect, negate recognition of Israel or reject Israel’s legitimate control over its present borders.
• The US supported a peace agreement and therefore it doesn’t and will not recognise the State of Palestine until there is a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
• It is a specialised agency of the United Nations that has its headquarters in Paris. It was co-founded by the United States after World War II to help protect cultural and natural heritage around the world.
• It is the successor of the League of Nations' International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation.
• The organisation’s main objective is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms.
• It also aims to contribute to the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.
• It is best known for its World Heritage program, which designates cultural sites and aims to preserve traditions such as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the Grand Canyon National Park.
• It also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust's horrors, and to defend media freedom.
• In total, UNESCO has 195 member states and 10 associate members and it pursues its objectives through five major programs: education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture and communication and information.