Unesco: US quits UN heritage agency over ‘anti-Israel bias’

The Guardian, 12 October, 2017

Trump administration has been preparing for a withdrawal from world heritage body for months


The state department said the US would remain engaged ‘as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise’. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images


The United States has formally notified the UN’s world heritage body Unesco that it is withdrawing its membership of the organisation, citing “continuing anti-Israel bias” and “mounting arrears”.

The US would seek to “remain engaged … as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise”, a state department statement added.

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Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, said she had received formal notification of withdrawal from the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

In 2011 the US cancelled its budget contribution to Unesco in protest against the admission of Palestine as a full member.

In a statement Bokova expressed her “profound regret” over the US decision. “This is not just about World Heritage,” she said, describing the withdrawal as “a loss to both the organisation and the US”.

Unesco members are voting on a replacement for Bokova, whose term in office is coming to an end.

After two days of a secret ballot that could run until Friday, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari is leading France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab.

The emergence of Kawari has been seen by Israel and the US as a failure of their efforts to secure the post for a figure they regard as more friendly.

Earlier this week Israel’s Unesco ambassador described the trajectory of voting in the secret ballots as “bad news for the organisation and unfortunately also for Israel”.

According to a report in Foreign Policy, the US decision was also driven by a desire to make budget cuts.

Foreign Policy reported that the decision to pull out had been made several weeks ago during the UN general assembly in New York, was taken over the heads of officials who had argued that the US should wait until after the Unesco election process was complete.

The US previously withdrew from Unesco under Ronald Reagan, only to rejoin under George W Bush.

Unesco has drawn the ire of Israel and the Trump administration for a series of decisions, including the listing of Hebron, a city in the southern part of the occupied Palestinian territories, as a Palestinian world heritage site.

In October Israel suspended cooperation after the agency adopted a draft resolution that Israel said denied the deep historic Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem.

The Trump administration has been preparing for a withdrawal for months, and a decision was expected before the end of the year, according to US officials. 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.

The lack of staffing and funding plans for Unesco by the US have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of Unesco by senior US officials, including the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

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