WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced Thursday that it would withdraw from UNESCO, the UN cultural organization, after years of the United States distancing itself because of what it called the group’s “anti-Israel bias.”
“This decision was not taken lightly,” according to a State Department statement Thursday.
In addition to anti-Israel bias, the department cited “the need for fundamental reform” and “mounting arrears” at the organization.
While the United States withdrew from the group, President Trump’s administration said it wanted to continue providing US perspective and expertise to UNESCO, but as a nonmember observer. The withdrawal goes into effect at the end of 2018.
UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization popularly known for its designation of world heritage sites, is a global development agency with missions that include promoting sex education, literacy, clean water, and equality for women.
In a lengthy written statement, Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, expressed regret at the US withdrawal, and said that the American people shared the organization’s goals.
“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 wrote.
In 2011, the United States stopped funding UNESCO due to what was then a forgotten, 15-year-old amendment mandating a complete cutoff of US financing to any UN agency that accepts Palestine as a full member.
Various efforts by President Barack Obama to overturn the legal restriction narrowly failed in Congress, and the United States lost its vote at the organization after two years of nonpayment, in 2013. UNESCO was dependent on the United States for 22 percent of its budget, then about $70 million a year.
Since 2011, US arrears to the organization have reached about $600 million, Bokova said, but she had told members of Congress repeatedly that immediate payment was not an issue, only US political re-engagement in the organization, which she believes serves many US interests abroad.
Bokova, in a telephone interview, said she “thought the decision was coming but why now, I don’t know, in the midst of elections” for a new director to replace her. “It’s very weird that it’s today,” she said. “It’s very, very regrettable.”
France and Qatar were running neck-and-neck in the race to lead the cultural body after a third round of voting Wednesday whittled the field down to five. Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Qatar and Audrey Azoulay of France — both former culture ministers — had 18 votes apiece in the battle to replace Bokova.
Behind them in the secret ballot was an Egyptian career diplomat, Moushira Khattab, with 13 votes, and Tang Qian of China with five, according to results posted on UNESCO’s website.
She argued that UNESCO is “so relevant to the political agenda of the American government it’s incredible,” citing its work trying to prevent violent extremism through educational and cultural programs in the developing world. UNESCO’s largest literacy program is in Afghanistan, she said, and UNESCO is also working in Libya and Iraq to train teachers and preserve cultural heritage in liberated areas. It has always worked against anti-Semitism and to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, Bokova said.
Analysts said that actually withdrawing from the organization was a significant escalation by the United States in its criticism of UN bodies.
“This is another example of the Trump’s administration’s profound ambivalence and concern about the way the UN is structured and behaves, and it shows the administration’s determination to separate itself from its predecessors,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations.