As 2019 dawned the United States and Israel withdrew from UNESCO, expanding the number of international organizations, treaties and laws that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has parted ways with in its rejection of multilateralism.
This marks the second U.S. departure from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization since it was co-founded by the United States in 1946 as a peace-promoting organization to help prevent another world war.
The first time was in 1985 under the Reagan administration, which accused the organization of mismanagement and corruption that helped the Soviet Union. The United States rejoined in 2003.
The Trump administration announced in October 2017 that it planned to leave UNESCO, saying the Paris-based organization had an anti-Israel bias. The U.S. cited the same rationale for its departure from the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last year.
UNESCO’s most visible program is its World Heritage protections for cultural traditions and treasured sites such as the Great Barrier Reef, Easter Island and Machu Picchu. Among its other prominent programs are the promotion of education for girls, defense of press freedoms and advocacy for Holocaust remembrance.
When UNESCO agreed to admit the Palestinian territories as an independent member nation in October 2011, a U.S. law kicked in that prohibited funding for any organization that recognized an independent Palestine. That cut off 22 percent of UNESCO’s yearly budget.
Two years later, UNESCO suspended the United States’ voting rights because of its missed member payments that were estimated to total more than a half-billion dollars.
The U.S. State Department said in October 2017 that the decision to leave UNESCO “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.”
The U.S. said, however, it would become a non-member observer to keep contributing “U.S. views, perspectives and expertise” on issues such as world heritage protections, press freedom and the promotion of scientific collaboration and education.
The outgoing U.S. envoy to the U.N. Nikki Haley sharpened the attack on UNESCO. Echoing Reagan-era criticism, she said “the U.S. withdrawal from this cesspool” could not be avoided because “UNESCO is among the most corrupt and politically biased U.N. agencies.”
Soon after the Trump administration made its plans known, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared he would do the same.
Some U.N. agencies, particularly UNESCO and the Human Rights Council’s predecessor — the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that operated from 1946 to 2006 — have long been seen by non-Western nations as siding with Israel in its occupation of Palestinian territories.
“UNESCO is a body that continually rewrites history, including by erasing the Jewish connection to Jerusalem,” Israeli U.N. envoy Danny Danon said. “Israel will not be a member of an organization whose goal is to deliberately act against us, and that has become a tool manipulated by Israel’s enemies.”
Russia said the U.S. withdrawal “undoubtedly harms multilateral humanitarian cooperation and UNESCO’S principle of universality as an organization in the U.N. system,” according to Russia’s envoy to UNESCO, Alexander Kuznetsov, as quoted by the state news agency Tass.
“Back in 1985, the U.S. already withdrew from the organization and remained outside of it for some 20 years. However, it did not prevent UNESCO from successfully fulfilling its tasks,” Kuznetsov said. “There is no doubt that it will be like that this time as well.”