US to quit Unesco over 'anti-Israel bias'

US President Donald Trump speaks on tax reform, at Harrisburg International Airport on Oct 11, 2017 in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
US President Donald Trump speaks on tax reform, at Harrisburg International Airport on Oct 11, 2017 in Middletown, Pennsylvania. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • The US said yesterday it was pulling out of the United Nation's culture and education body, accusing it of "anti-Israel bias" in a move criticised by the head of the Paris-based organisation.

Following years of tension at Unesco, which is in the process of electing a new director-general, US State Department spokesman Heather Nauert announced that Washington planned to withdraw.

"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at Unesco, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias at Unesco," she said in a statement.

The State Department said the United States would remain involved as a non-member observer. The withdrawal goes into effect at the end of next year.

The US - one of the body's founding members - has withdrawn once before, under President Ronald Reagan in 1984, over alleged financial mismanagement and anti-US bias in some of the Unesco policies.

President George W. Bush announced America's return in 2002, but relations soured again in 2011, when Washington pulled the plug on funding to the body after its members voted to admit Palestine as a full member.

Washington opposes any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinians as a state, believing that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.

But President Donald Trump's administration is also reviewing many of its multilateral commitments, pursuing what he calls an "America First" policy.

The head of Unesco, Ms Irina Bokova, voiced "profound regret" over the decision, calling it a "loss to multilateralism".

Unesco, which is best known for producing the list of World Heritage sites that includes the Grand Canyon and other US attractions, has been the scene of diplomatic flare-ups in recent years after Arab countries succeeded in passing a number of resolutions critical of Israel.

In May this year, Israel was infuriated by a resolution identifying the country as "the occupying power" in the divided of city of Jerusalem and calling on it to rescind any move changing the city's "character and status".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2017, with the headline 'US to quit Unesco over 'anti-Israel bias''. Print Edition | Subscribe