The U.S. stands to save more than $500 million that the government owes to the United Nations by withdrawing from the organization’s cultural heritage arm.
The Department of State announced Thursday that it will officially pull back from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by the end of 2018, taking an inactive observer role rather than that of a contributing member.
Most of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s rational for withdrawing stems from the “anti-Israel bias” at UNESCO, but the government is also concerned about about the U.S.’s growing debt to the organization.
“This decision was not taken lightly,” the State Department said in a press release, citing “concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”
The U.S. currently owes the international body $542 million in dues that former President Barack Obama refused to pay starting in 2011 when UNESCO voted to include Palestine as a member. UNESCO is best known for maintaining a list of world heritage sites around the globe, including Stonehenge in the U.K., the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the historic district of Florence, Italy, but the group also funds international literacy and scientific programs.
When the U.S. government declined to pay its annual dues of more than $80 million out of protest in 2011, UNESCO lost about 22 percent of its yearly budget.
“This is a loss to UNESCO,” Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said in a statement following notification of the U.S.’s withdrawal. “This is a loss for multilateralism.”
America’s involvement in UNESCO is of the utmost importance today, Bokova said, “when the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security, to counter racism and antisemitism, to fight ignorance and discrimination.”
“In 2011, when payment of membership contributions was suspended at the 36th session of the UNESCO General Conference, I said I was convinced UNESCO had never mattered as much for the United States, or the United States for UNESCO,” Bokova added. “Despite the withholding of funding, since 2011, we have deepened the partnership between the United States and UNESCO, which has never been so meaningful.”
Even without the funding to UNESCO, the U.S. pays $3.3 billion to the U.N. and its various organizations and missions annually, and President Donald Trump has proposed a 40 percent cut to funding.
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