This item has been updated to reflect Israel’s announcement that it, too, is leaving UNESCO.
Of all the United Nations bodies, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) might be the hardest to dislike. Founded in 1946, it aims “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue” through the international circulation of ideas. Most famously, it protects cultural heritage around the world, from the Great Wall of China to Belgian beer culture, from the Stone Circles of Senegambia in Gambia to India’s yoga tradition.
Yet, the US State Department announced today (Oct. 12) that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO membership. It will become a mere “observer state,” with no dues paid and no contribution to how the organization is run. Currently, 23 places in the US are on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, though nothing American appears in the organization’s list of “intangible cultural heritage.”
The US claims it’s leaving the organization in protest of UNESCO’s anti-Israel bias. It might be alluding to the fact that Palestine, which has not been granted full membership to the United Nations, is a UNESCO member, and that the West Bank city of Hebron was recently named an official world heritage site in a UNESCO statement that also called Israeli occupation of the territory illegal. (Israel, another UNESCO member, argues that the ancient monuments in Hebron should be considered Jewish heritage.)
The US has long used UNESCO as a stage for political gestures: In 1984, the Ronald Reagan withdrew the US from UNESCO, accusing it of being pro-Soviet, anti-Israel, and anti-free market. In 2002, George W Bush joined UNESCO again, and in 2011, Barack Obama cut most US funding to UNESCO due to the organization’s recognition of Palestine. The US has not paid its dues to the organization since then, raking up a bill of over $500 million in debt to the organization. In 2013, the US lost voting power due to its non-payment.
Following the US, Israel too announced today that it will pull out of the organization.