UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is an agency of the United Nations located in Paris with the purpose to promote culture. Or to “contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedom proclaimed in the United Nations Charter.” UNESCO has ten associate members and 195 member states. On December 31st, that total will be 193 after the United States and Israel will withdraw. The move was the result of alleged continuing anti-Israel bias.
UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites such as Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, Serengeti National Park, Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, the Grand Canyon National Park and the statue of Liberty, among many others.
Reuters first reported the statement released by the State Department’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert: “This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”
Netanyahu Takes A Stand
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement shortly after the United States announcement saying it would also be leaving the organization. Netanyahu said, “This is a brave and moral decision because UNESCO has become a theater of absurd. Instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”
Financially speaking, it will be a significant blow to UNESCO. The United States is responsible for 20% of their funding. However, the United States has already withheld its financial support for UNESCO since 2011, when they granted Palestine admission as a full member. Palestine’s admission was deemed a controversial move. 14 out of the 194 members voted against admitting Palestine – including Israel and the United States.
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Prime Minister Netanyahu added on that the decision by the United States was “brave and moral.”
Israel and Palestinian Tensions
The tensions between Palestine and Israel have boiled over into UNESCO. Last month at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu was irate after the organization designated Hebron and the pair of adjoined shrines at its heart – the Jewish Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Muslim Ibrahimi Mosque – as a “Palestinian World Heritage Site in Danger.” Netanyahu proclaimed the designation as “fake history.” Additionally, an Arab-sponsored UNESCO resolution in 2016 condemned Israeli’s policies at religious sites in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is in addition to the current strained relations between the two countries outside of UNESCO.
As Reuters reported, “Today is a new day at the U.N., where there is price to pay for discrimination against Israel,” Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova was disappointed in the decision by the United States. Bokova said, “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.” She added the decision was, “a loss for multiculturalism and the UN family.”
US and UNESCO Have a Rocky Relationship
Even though the United States was a founding member of UNESCO, it has had a rocky relationship with the organization. The U.S. left the group in 1984 and did not rejoin until 2003.
The U.S. will not completely disassociate itself with the organization, however. It will remain in the organization as a “non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise.”