The Trump administration announced Thursday it plans to pull the U.S. out of UNESCO, citing financial mismanagement and persistent anti-Israel bias at the United Nation’s preeminent cultural organization.
The U.S. will remain a non-member observer state after the withdrawal goes into effect on Dec. 31, 2018, according to the State Department.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The U.S. was a founding member of UNESCO when the organization was created in the aftermath of WWII to promote the exchange of educational, scientific and cultural knowledge. The relationship has been strained at times, however, with the U.S. criticizing what it saw as corruption and a pro-Soviet tilt during the height of the Cold War.
The Reagan administration pulled out of UNESCO in 1984, and the U.S. did not rejoin the organization until 2002, when former President George W. Bush renewed ties, citing improved financial transparency and a correction of its anti-Western bent.
More recently, though, the U.S. has clashed with UNESCO over policies viewed as hostile to Israel. The Obama administration in 2011 cut off about $80 million in annual funding after the organization admitted Palestine as a member state.
As a result of the funding cuts, the U.S. lost its voting rights in UNESCO’s general conference, but maintained an office in the group’s Paris headquarters. Since then, UNESCO has continued to make what American and Israeli officials consider deliberately anti-Israel decisions about cultural heritage sites in disputed territory.
In its most recent move, UNESCO in July declared the “old city” in the West Bank city of Hebron to be a Palestinian World Heritage Site, a designation that Israel claims negates Judaism’s historical connection to the biblical site.
The State Department says it has expressed a desire to “remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise” on the organization’s initiatives.
In response to Thursday’s announcement, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova called the U.S. withdrawal a “loss for multilateralism” and a “loss to the United Nations family.”
“At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues,” she said in a statement.
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