PARIS — The United States said Thursday it is pulling out of the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and need for “fundamental reform.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit.
While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the announcement by the State Department on Thursday rocked the agency’s Paris headquarters, where a heated election to choose a new chief is underway.
The outgoing UNESCO director-general expressed her “profound regret” at the decision and tried to defend the reputation of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions.
The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh on policy behind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.
In a statement, the State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the U.S. will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited U.S. belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”
Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel will also withdraw from 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.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, praised Washington’s move as heralding “a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”
Naming World Heritage sites — places like the Egyptian pyramids or the Statue of Liberty that are given a special U.N. status and protection — is one of the many programs run by UNESCO.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has long faced accusations of corruption, mismanagement and political bias in its resolutions and the United States is about to abandon the agency because of what Washington sees as a longstanding anti-Israel bias.
Beyond the diplomatic disputes, here’s a look at some things that UNESCO does:
WORLD HERITAGE SITES
The agency’s World Heritage Committee each year designates sites considered “of outstanding value to humanity” and intervenes when sites are in danger of destruction or damage. The program provides countries with technical assistance and professional training to preserve the sites, and now includes “intangible” heritage such as folk songs or traditional dances in its lists. A World Heritage site designation is coveted and seen as a boost to local tourism.
UNESCO works to improve literacy throughout the world, with a special focus on girls in poor countries who get little or no schooling. The agency provides teacher training and materials and encourages programs for girls to pursue careers in science.
Like the rest of the U.N., UNESCO was created in response to the horrors of World War II, and particularly Nazi crimes. Amid concerns that the agency’s Arab members have used UNESCO to pass anti-Israel resolutions, UNESCO has worked in recent years on Holocaust awareness projects. That includes educational materials in multiple languages and organizing visits to former Nazi concentration camps.
The agency seeks to coordinate climate knowledge, including studies of impacts on UNESCO’s network of biosphere reserves, and to improve international education about how global warming occurs and affects people around the world.