US, Israel withdraw from 'biased' UNESCO

Ahmad Gharabli, AFP | A general view taken on October 13, 2016, shows the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a UNESCO heritage site, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The United States and Israel announced Thursday that they will withdraw from the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), after Washington accused the body of "anti-Israel bias."


State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington would establish an "observer mission" to replace its representation at the Paris-based agency.

Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would quit too, calling the US decision "brave and moral".

"The prime minister instructed the foreign ministry to prepare Israel's withdrawal from the organisation alongside the United States," Netanyahu's office said in a statement.

The United States was angered in 2011 when UNESCO members granted Palestine full membership of the body, despite opposition from its ally Israel. The move resulted in both the US and Israel to halt their contributions to the agency.

Washington opposes any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinians as a state, believing that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.

But US President Donald Trump's administration is also reviewing many of its multilateral commitments, pursuing what he calls an "America First" foreign policy.

Nauert said the State Department had notified UNESCO's outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova of their decision earlier Thursday.

"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO," she said in a statement.

"The United States indicated to the director-general its desire to remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education."

The news of Washington’s decision comes as members of the UNESCO executive board are in the midst of nominating a successor for Bokova.

Can’t imagine how US will detach’

In an interview with FRANCE 24, the UNESCO head said she felt “deep regret” over the US announcement.

“The United States is not just the founder of UNESCO, but it was an American who penned our constitution in 1945,” she said, adding: “We need the United States, we need universality of this organisation if we want this large platform of negotiation, of dialogue, of reaching mutually agreed ideas and policies.”

Asked whether she thought the US would reverse its decision any time soon, Irina Bokova said that: “We never stopped working with the United States after the suspension of their financial contribution. We have developed very solid partnerships,” she said. “I cannot imagine how the United States will detach from us."

"With the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] we have done so much work on the illicit trafficking of objects of art. With the Smithsonian [Institution] we work, even today, in Iraq. We have a joint mission to protect and preserve the Iraqi heritage which is vital for the peace and reconciliation of this country. We also work with the University of Pennsylvania on literacy, our biggest literacy program in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan.”

Trump’s America continues ‘to go at it alone’

Reporting from Washington, FRANCE 24’s Gallagher Fenwick said that the decision to pull out is as much about benefitting the US as it is a protest of the workings of the agency.

“The administration and state department have made it very clear that this is both an attempt to save money, and funds, but also to protest what is being considered as the unilateralism of a UNESCO for Palestine. [UNESCO] is considered by this administration to be an anti-Israel organisation and of having been politicised to further goals which this administration disapproves of,” he said.

Fenwick also said the decision seems to underscore Trump’s “America First” agenda.

“This administration continues, on the international scene, to go at it alone after pulling out of the COP 21 Paris climate agreement.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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