UNESCO, a subdivision of the United Nations, aims to to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development, and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication, and information.
On October 12th the US State Department announced the US withdrawal from UNESCO, citing an anti-Israel bias, mounting US arrears, and the need for fundamental reform within the organisation. This is not the first time that the US has withdrawn from UNESCO, in 1984 they withdrew claiming bias in favour of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 2002, under President Bush, that the US re-joined the organisation. The claims of anti-Israel bias within UNESCO is the most significant, and controversial, factor in the decision to leave.
From the onset Trump has made his support for Israel apparent, and the protection and defense of Israel is a key part of US foreign policy. There are multiple instances that can be looked at in terms of an “anti-Israel bias” within UNESCO. In 2011 the US stopped funding UNESCO in protest of their recognition of Palestine as a full member of the organisation. In recent years UNESCO have created problems with Israel and the US about their treatment of heritage sites in Israel.
In 2016 UNESCO drafted a resolution titled “Occupied Palestine”, which represents the views and complaints of Jordan and Palestine over the actions of Israel at the Haram-al-Sharif or Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem. There is strong language throughout the resolution that refers to Israel as the “occupying Power” and strongly condemns the country for not adhering to UNESCO protocol regarding sites in East Jerusalem. The resolution refers to the site by its Arabic name, Haram-al-Sharif. Israel claimed that by using the Arabic name UNESCO was ignoring the Jewish connection to the site. Palestine defended the use of the Arabic name by stating that as the text refers to the Muslim places of worship the Arabic name is correct. Israel states that the choice of language is an attempt by UNESCO to deliberately remove the Jewish connection, a strong statement that has been reiterated in recent events.
The Haram-al-Sharif / Temple Mount complex, Jerusalem. Source: Dennis Jarvis.
In July 2017 UNESCO named the old city of Hebron, a revered site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a Palestinian world heritage site. This sparked outrage in Israel as the site had not been named a Jewish or Israeli world heritage site. Before the vote there were attempts by both Israel and the US to have the motion blocked. The US ambassador to the United Nations stated that the decision to name Hebron a Palestinian world heritage site was the breaking point in US and UNESCO relations.
The announcement of the US withdrawal from UNESCO was met with praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who gave a harsh statement about the organisation, stating it had become “a theater of the absurd because, instead of preserving history, it distorts it”. This statement was given as he announced that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been told to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO.
Irina Bokova, the current director general, gave a statement that stressed the importance of US participation in UNESCO's work and aims. She stressed the importance of universality within the organisation in order to achieve their mission to “strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity”.
The withdrawal has implications for both the US and UNESCO. By continuing their association with UNESCO as a non-member observer state, the US will be able to participate in talks and debates but will be unable to vote on such matters. In removing themselves from the international organisation, the US are lessening their impact as a global power. This decision also has implications for Israel. With Israel announcing their intentions to leave UNESCO alongside the US, this means that the two main supporters of Israel will have no vote on matters regarding Israel and the surrounding countries.
Despite the existing tension between the US and UNESCO, in recent years there has been a conscious effort from the US government to work with the organisation to combat the destruction of cultural heritage. In 2014 then secretary of state John Kerry acknowledged that attacks on cultural and historical sites by Daesh, also known as Islamic State or ISIS, were deliberate attacks on local populations. The change in attitudes towards cultural heritage were reiterated when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made an agreement with UNESCO to help rescue objects of cultural value that were at “imminent risk” from conflict. This agreement was made in 2016 and is yet to be used. However, in the future it is sure to be beneficial as ICRC has unique access to cultural heritage sites due to the organisation being present during conflicts. After the governmental withdrawal from UNESCO the protection of cultural heritage falls to non-governmental groups. The most public of these is the US based group in association with the J. Paul Getty Trust and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who are working to create solutions to combat cultural heritage problems.
The US withdrawal from UNESCO brings to light the issue of an anti-Israel bias within the organisation. The US hopes that their withdrawal will push UNESCO to critique and reform itself. On a wider scale this could create a problem with the work that UNESCO does to protect cultural heritage. In order for the organisation to have power to influence and prosecute it needs to have universal support, with the US pulling away this puts UNESCO in a much weaker position.