United States Withdraws from UNESCO

United States Withdraws from UNESCO

On Oct. 7, United States declared that it will withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizational (UNESCO), mainly because of the organization’s “anti-Israeli bias.” According to the announcement, the withdrawal will be implemented by the end of next year.

The decision is also triggered by the substantial financial debt that the United States owes to UNESCO. The current debt, totaling $500 million, will increase to $600 million by the time the United States officially withdraws from the organization. This is not the first time that the United States has withdrawn from UNESCO.  Back in 1984, Ronald Reagan pulled the country out of the organization because of its pro-Soviet union bias, and its overly critical attitude to both Israel and free market capitalism. The United States only joined back in 2002 because former president, George W. Bush, showcased his interest in international cooperation in the buildup to the Iraq war.


UNESCO is mostly known for conserving historical monuments. The World Heritage program by UNESCO aims to maintain major cultural sites around the globe.  However, the organization's mission extends beyond that to include the promotion of peace and key services like education and access to clean water. Although the United States is withdrawing, it will remain involved as an observer and a non-member state.

United States and UNESCO have had a history of disagreement,  but the tensions escalated in 2011. United States cut its funding to UNESCO after the organization admitted the territory known as Palestine as a full member. According to the United States, UNESCO's anti-Israeli bias continued when the organization declared that the city of Hebron’s famous monuments, like the Tomb of the Patriarchs, is a Palestinian World Heritage site. In its most recent resolution, the organization also criticized Israel's approach to dealing with historical monuments, specifically regarding the old city of Jerusalem and their restriction on freedom of worship.


On its part, UNESCO, through its Director-general Irina Bokova, has expressed regret over the United States’ decisions, especially because it comes at a critical time. Bokova talked about the importance of UNESCO to the United States, including their significant role in combatting terrorism, especially in countries like Afghanistan, in which the organization has a strong literacy program. 


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the United States’ decision and called it “ethical” and “courageous,”announcing that he has plans for Israel to do the same. While the United States’ decision to leave UNESCO has been pending for years, it is part of the Trump administration’s policy to distance itself from United Nations organizations. The decision is also  congruent with President Trump’s emphasis on defending Israel. Trump has criticized the Obama administration’s actions in the United Nations, and has promised to change the embassy’s location from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On the other hand, some cultural organizations in the US have expressed concerns about this decision because of UNESCO’s important role in preserving cultural heritage.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration also left the Paris Accords, emphasizing its commitment to “America first,” by leaving organizations and agreements that have been established to maintain peace, and advocate for progress and stability.

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