U.S. withdraws from UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization, citing anti-Israel bias

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A general assembly at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock file)

The United States plans to withdraw from UNESCO, citing financial reasons, as well as what it said was an anti-Israel bias at the U.N.’s educational, cultural and science organization.

The decision to withdraw from UNESCO was announced Thursday morning by the State Department, which said the United States would remain involved as a nonmember observer state.

The United States helped found UNESCO but has been at odds with the organization in recent years.

The withdrawal, which will take effect at the end of 2018, marks yet another decision by the Trump administration to distance itself from some parts of the international community.

Some of the United States’s closest allies are among UNESCO’s 195 members. France’s U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, had urged the United States to remain in UNESCO this week, saying the United States “must stay committed to world affairs.”

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, expressed “profound regret” after the State Department announced its decision on Thursday, calling it a “loss for multilateralism.”

“Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity,” she said in a statement.

UNESCO was established after World War II to help promote global cooperation around the flow of ideas, culture and information. UNESCO’s mission includes programs to improve access to education, preserve cultural heritage, improve gender equality and promote scientific advances and freedom of expression.

It is perhaps best known for the World Heritage program, which helps maintain cultural sites of import around the globe.

But the United States has at times had an ambivalent relationship with the Paris-based organization. The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 under the Reagan Administration, critical of what it believed was a pro-Soviet Union bias.

It eventually rejoined in 2002 as an effort of the George W. Bush administration to emphasize a message of international cooperation. “America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance and learning,” Bush said at the time.

Tensions have returned in recent years.

The United States stopped paying its dues in 2011 after UNESCO voted to include the Palestinian Authority as a member, citing a 1990s-era law that prohibits funding for U.N. groups that recognize Palestinian territories. Israel recalled its ambassador to the organization last year after some governments in the organization supported a resolution which denounced Israel’s policies on religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This summer, UNESCO members voted to recognize the old city of Hebron in the West Bank, despite pressure from Israel and the United States.

Senior Trump administration officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have been critical of the organization.

Bokova, the director-general, said the partnership between the United States and UNESCO “has never been so meaningful,” despite the withholding of U.S. funding.

“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,” she said.

She added: “The American poet, diplomat and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish penned the lines that open UNESCO’s 1945 Constitution: ‘Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.’ This vision has never been more relevant.”

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