US and Israel exit UN cultural agency, claiming bias

In this Tuesday Oct. 31, 2017 file picture, the Eiffel Tower, country flags and the Dome are seen from the garden of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) headquarters building during the 39th session of the General Conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. (AP)
Updated 01 January 2019
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US and Israel exit UN cultural agency, claiming bias

  • The withdrawal is mainly procedural yet serves a new blow to UNESCO

PARIS: The United States and Israel officially quit the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural agency at the stroke of midnight, the culmination of a process triggered more than a year ago amid concerns that the organization fosters anti-Israel bias.
The withdrawal is mainly procedural yet serves a new blow to UNESCO, co-founded by the US after World War II to foster peace.
The Trump administration filed its notice to withdraw in October 2017 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit.
The Paris-based organization has been denounced by its critics as a crucible for anti-Israel bias: blasted for criticizing Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, naming ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites and granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.
The US has demanded “fundamental reform” in the agency that is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions. UNESCO also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors, and to defend media freedom.
The withdrawals will not greatly impact UNESCO financially, since it has been dealing with a funding slash ever since 2011 when both Israel and the US stopped paying dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state. Since then officials estimate that the US — which accounted for around 22 percent of the total budget — has accrued $600 million in unpaid dues, which was one of the reasons for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw. Israel owes an estimated $10 million.
UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay took up her post just after Trump announced the pullout. Azoulay, who has Jewish and Moroccan heritage, has presided over the launch of a Holocaust education website and the UN’s first educational guidelines on fighting anti-Semitism — initiatives that might be seen as responding to US and Israeli concerns.
Officials say that many of the reasons the US cited for withdrawal do not apply anymore, noting that since then, all 12 texts on the Middle East passed at UNESCO have been consensual among Israel and Arab member states.
In April of this year, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO said the mood was “like a wedding” after member nations signed off on a rare compromise resolution on “Occupied Palestine,” and UNESCO diplomats hailed a possible breakthrough on longstanding Israeli-Arab tensions.
The document was still quite critical of Israel, however, and the efforts weren’t enough to encourage the US and Israel to reconsider their decision to quit.
In recent years, Israel has been infuriated by repeated resolutions that ignore and diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and that have named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.
The State Department couldn’t comment because of the US government shutdown. Earlier, the department told UNESCO officials the US intends to stay engaged at UNESCO as a non-member “observer state” on “non-politicized” issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.
The US could potentially seek that status during UNESCO Executive Board meetings in April.
The United States has pulled out of UNESCO before. The Reagan administration did so in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003.


MH17 crash probe set to name suspects

A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 18, 2014. (REUTERS)
Updated 4 min 49 sec ago
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MH17 crash probe set to name suspects

  • Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed in the war in the east, which erupted after a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president and Russia annexed Crimea

THE HAGUE: International investigators are on Wednesday expected to announce charges against several suspects in the shooting down of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine five years ago in an attack which killed all 298 people on board.
The Dutch-led probe has said it will first inform families, and then hold a press conference to unveil “developments in the criminal investigation” into the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.
The breakthrough comes nearly a year after the investigators said that the BUK missile which hit the plane had originated from a Russian military brigade based in the southwestern city of Kursk.
The airliner traveling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was torn apart in mid-air on July 17, 2014 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists.
Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister Olena Zerkal told Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Tuesday that four people would be named over MH17, including senior Russian army officers.
“The names will be announced. Charges will be brought, Zerkal said, adding that a Dutch court would then “start working to consider this case.”
Zerkal added that the transfer of weapons like the BUK anti-aircraft missile system “is impossible without the (Russian) top brass’s permission” and said others would have been involved beyond those being charged.

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the attack — which includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine — has declined to confirm that it will announce charges.
The Netherlands and Australia said last May that they formally “hold Russia responsible” for the disaster, after the findings on the origin of the missile were announced. Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 were Australian.
Moscow has vehemently denied all involvement.
Dutch broadcaster RTL, quoting anonymous sources, said the suspects could be tried in absentia as Russia does not extradite its nationals for prosecution.
“I expect there will be important new information. That means the inquiry is advancing,” Piet Ploeg, president of a Dutch victims’ association who lost three family members on MH17, was quoted as saying by broadcaster NOS on Friday.
“It’s the first step to a trial.”
Investigative website Bellingcat said separately it will also name “individuals linked to the downing of MH17” on Wednesday. It said its reporting was “totally independent and separate from the JIT’s investigation.”

The JIT said last year that MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile from the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade based in Kursk, but that they were still searching for suspects.
They showed videos and animation of the BUK launcher as part of a Russian military convoy, using video clips found on social media and then checked against Google Maps, as it traveled from Kursk to eastern Ukraine.
Investigators said they had also identified a ‘fingerprint’ of seven identifying features that were unique to the BUK including a military number on the launcher.
Russia insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev’s forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era and had not been returned to Russia.
The Netherlands said it would study the information but added that details previously provided by Russia — such as the alleged presence of a Ukrainian jet near the airliner on radar images — were incorrect.
Ties between Moscow and The Hague were further strained last year when the Dutch expelled four alleged Russian spies for trying to hack into the Dutch-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The war in eastern Ukraine and the MH17 disaster continue to plague relations between Russia and the West.
Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed in the war in the east, which erupted after a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president and Russia annexed Crimea.
Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms to back the separatists. Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.