While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal for months, the announcement by the State Department on Thursday rocked UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, where a heated election to choose a new director is underway.
UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the Grand Canyon National Park.
“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,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his could was also quitting the agency, saying it had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”
He said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from the organization in concert with the Americans.
The outgoing UNESCO chief expressed her “profound regret” at the decision and tried to defend the reputation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World
Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.
“After receiving official notification by the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson, as UNESCO director general, I wish to express profound regret at the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from UNESCO,” Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, said in a statement sent to Arab News.
“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,” Bokova added.
The US stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh on policy behind the scenes. The US now owes about $550 million in back payments.
In a statement, the US State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the US will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited US belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”
Several diplomats who were to have been posted to the mission this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs. In addition, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted.
Bokova said 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 so much for the United States, or the United States for UNESCO.”
She said: “At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.”
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.
The organization, which employs around 2,000 people worldwide, most of them based in Paris, has struggled for relevance as it becomes increasingly hobbled by regional rivalries and a lack of money.
UNESCO, whose full name is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is in the process of selecting a new chief, whose priority will be to revive its fortunes.
The US move underscores the skepticism expressed by President Donald Trump about the need for the US to remain engaged in multi-lateral bodies. The president has touted an “America First” policy, which puts US economic and national interests ahead of international commitments.
Since Trump took office, the United States has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and withdrawn from the Paris climate deal. Washington is also reviewing its membership of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, which it also accuses of being anti-Israel.
“The absence of the United States or any large country with a lot of power is a loss. It’s not just about money, it’s promoting ideals that are vital to countries like the United States, such as education and culture,” a UNESCO-based diplomat said, warning that others could follow.
For differing reasons, Britain, Japan and Brazil are among states that have yet to pay their dues for 2017.
Russia’s former envoy to UNESCO told RIA news agency the agency was better off without the Americans.
“In recent years, they’ve been of no use for this organization,” Eleanora Mitrofanova said. “Since 2011 they have practically not been paying to the budget of this organization... They decided to exit — this is absolutely in line with Trump’s general logic today.”
After four days of secret balloting to pick a new UNESCO chief, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari qualified for the Friday runoff.
France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egypt’s Moushira Khattab were tied in second. One will be eliminated after another vote by 58-member Executive Council on Friday. If the two finalists end level, they draw lots.
The election has exposed deep rivalries between Qatar and Egypt that has its roots in the crisis engulfing Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors which have severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Doha after accusing it of sponsoring hard-line Islamist groups, a charge Qatar denies.