Thursday, October 12, 2017

US Announces Intent to Withdraw from UNESCO

US announces intent to withdraw from UNESCO
The United States will withdraw from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO), effective December 31, 2018.

Today's announcement comes as no surprise to cultural property watchers. The US Mission to the United Nations said in July that "[t]he United States is currently evaluating the appropriate level of its continued engagement at UNESCO," prompted by the UN cultural agency's decision "to designate the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as part of Palestinian territory and a World Heritage site despite protests by the United States, Israel, and other countries," according to the US Mission.

Nikki Haley, America's ambassador to the UN, remarked this past summer that UNESCO's vote was "tragic." "It undermines the trust that is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be successful. And it further discredits an already highly questionable UN agency," she said.

The longstanding tension between the US and UNESCO is described in CHL's 2013 blog post, No Money, No Vote: A Closer Look at the Strained Relationship Between the U.S. and UNESCO. The events it chronicles set the stage for today's notification by the US State Department to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of its intent to set up an American permanent observer mission after officially withdrawing from the UN agency next year.

"This decision was not taken lightly," the State Department explained in a press statement. The decision "reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO."

Bokova responded with a public announcement "to express profound regret..." She touted her agency's achievements, naming six UNESCO goals that she said are "shared by the American people," including the advancement of literacy and education, the harnessing of technology, the enhancement of scientific cooperation, the promotion of freedom of expression, the empowerment of girls and women, and the bolstering of societies facing instability.

"Despite the withholding of [US] funding, since 2011, we have deepened the partnership between the United States and UNESCO, which has never been so meaningful," Bokova noted. "Together, we have worked to protect humanity’s shared cultural heritage in the face of terrorist attacks and to prevent violent extremism through education and media literacy." The director general proclaimed, "This is a loss to UNESCO. This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism."

Ambassador Haley issued a statement later in the day, agreeing that "[t]he purpose of UNESCO is a good one," but adding, "Unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment." Haley pointed to the UN agency's retention of "Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protestors."

Today's State Department announcement comes at a time when UNESCO members sharply debate the selection of Bokova's replacement. Bokova has served as director general since 2009. Her term expires this year.

[UPDATE 10/13/17]  UNESCO’s Executive Board on Friday, by a vote of 30 to 28, selected Audrey Azoulay to lead UNESCO. She is a former French culture minister.  Her nomination will be brought before the UN agency's full membership, the General Conference, on November 10.

Photo credit: Eric Ortner/

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