A UNESCO General Assembly meeting in 2013 (image via Wikipedia)

The State Department announced today that the United States will withdraw from UNESCO, citing “continuing anti-Israel bias” at the United Nation’s cultural, educational, and science organization as well as its “need for fundamental reform” and “mounting arrears.” The departure from the 195-nation strong agency marks yet another alarming move by the Trump’s administration to distance itself from the international community, following other monumental decisions like pulling out from the Paris Agreement.

The withdraw becomes official on December 31, 2018, after which the United States will remain involved as a nonmember observer state. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova responded to the move in a lengthy statement, describing it as “a loss for multilateralism.

“Universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity,” she wrote. “At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.

“At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.”

One of UNESCO’s founding nations, the United States has had a rocky relationship with the Paris-based organization over the years. The decision to withdraw is actually not unprecedented. Under the Reagan Administration, the US quit UNESCO in 1984, at the time accusing the agency of a pro- Soviet Union bias. It wasn’t until 18 years later that it rejoined under the administration of George W. Bush. Tensions have flared again in recent years: in 2011, the United States stopped funding the agency after UNESCO voted to admit the Palestinian Authority as a full member; two years later, the US lost its vote due to these financial cuts. This past July, UNESCO’s decision to recognize the ancient city of Hebron (aka al-Khalīl), located in the West Bank, as a Palestinian World Heritage site drew sharp criticism from the Trump administration, particularly from Nikki Haley. Today, the US Ambassador to the UN stressed the influence this contentious vote had on the decision to withdraw, in a statement shared on Twitter:

As Haley alluded to, the withdrawal is also motivated by US budget concerns. According to Foreign Policy, the US pays tens of millions in annual dues to UNESCO and also owes the agency over $500 million as a result of its 2011 funding cuts. Trump has also criticized America’s contributions to UN institutions as disproportionate — not only 22% of the UN’s regular budget but also 28% of its peacekeeping.

Israel has also announced today that they will be quitting the UN agency, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision by the US “brave and moral.”

UPDATE, October 12, 2017, 6:17pm EST: 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s President and CEO Daniel H. Weiss released a statement on the announcement:

“One of our most important responsibilities as museum leaders is to protect cultural heritage and promote international education. For more than half a century The Met and countless other museums have successfully partnered with UNESCO, an organization that has earned the respect of nations and communities worldwide for bringing together curators, conservators, and a range of other scholars to educate, preserve, protect, and support the intellectual and artistic traditions of our shared cultural heritage. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO undermines the historic role of the United States as a leader in this effort and weakens our position as a strong advocate for cultural preservation. Although UNESCO may be an imperfect organization, it has been an important leader and steadfast partner in this crucial work. The Met remains deeply committed to productive engagement with UNESCO and our colleagues around the world who share this important objective.”

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...