UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture.
According to the organization’s own website, UNESCO’s founding vision was born in response to a world war that was marked by racist and anti-Semitic violence. Seventy years on and many liberation struggles later, UNESCO’s mandate is as relevant as ever. Cultural diversity is under attack and new forms of intolerance, rejection of scientific facts and threats to freedom of expression challenge peace and human rights. In response, UNESCO’s duty remains to reaffirm the humanist missions of education, science and culture.
Membership in UNESCO is restricted only to those countries worthy of protecting humanity’s most valuable treasures, its environment, and its culture. The United States is home to 24 World Heritage Sites and first joined this organization during its formation in the mid ’40s, alongside China, the United Kingdom, the United States and the then USSR. Tensions between UNESCO and the U.S. arose 40 years later during the Reagan Administration, when the organization recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and later Palestine.
As of January 1, 2019, the United States officially withdrew from UNESCO a second time. The withdrawal was first announced in October 2017 after UNESCO recognized the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage Site despite resistance from the United States and Israel. According to the Architect’s Newspaper, this region is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a sacred religious site which the Jews call the Cave of Machpelah to Jews and Muslims call the Sanctuary of Abraham.
As National Geographic reports, the United States and Israel lodged complaints that the UN was engaging in “anti-Israeli bias” stemming from the recognition of Palestine as a member state of the UN in 2011. The U.S. State Department later said that the U.S. would only remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state, to continue promoting world heritage protection, press freedoms, and scientific collaboration.
The U.S. asked to “remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert wrote in a statement on October 12, 2017.
But many Americans, and many international allies, were not impressed by the move.
“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,” Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova said in a statement. “This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”
The U.S. has failed to pay past dues for several years now. The country is in arrears to UNESCO for more than $500 million and growing.
With Trump’s departure, President Joe Biden may ask UNESCO to restore the U.S. to full membership. Two of Biden’s first actions as president were to rejoin the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. Biden would need Congressional approval to recommit to UNESCO, however, which may take longer to secure.
“The major question is how much damage has been done to the credibility of U.S. leadership, especially in that the United States has shown that its policy can turn on a dime when administrations change,” CFR’s Stewart M. Patrick says.
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