US announced withdrawing from UNESCO

The United States has announced it will withdraw from the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), accusing the body of “anti-Israel bias”.

Heather Nauert, US state department spokesperson, said on Thursday the US would establish an “observer mission” to replace its representation at the Paris-based agency.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s outgoing director-general, said she “deeply regrets” the decision and is convinced that “UNESCO has never been so important for the US, or the US for UNESCO” given “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism”.

The decision demonstrates the US administration’s “complete and total bias” towards Israel, says Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party comprising secular intellectuals.

“This behaviour is counterproductive and shameful,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

“Sooner or later they will see Palestine in every UN agency. Will the US respond to that by withdrawing from the WHO or the World Intellectual Property Organization? They will be hurting only themselves.”

The US was angered in 2011 when UNESCO members granted Palestine full membership of the body, despite opposition from its ally Israel.

That year the US stopped paying into UNESCO but did not officially withdraw.

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

‘Not taken lightly’

UNESCO is best known for its work to preserve heritage, including maintaining a list of World Heritage sites, and programmes to promote education in developing countries.

Nauert said the state department had notified Bokova of their decision earlier on Thursday.

“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.

Donald Trump’s administration is also reviewing many of its multilateral commitments, pursuing what he calls an “America First” foreign policy.

Tatiana Dovgalenko, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to UNESCO, told the Associated Press news agency that the departure of “one of the countries that founded the UN system” is “a shock and a pity”.

However, Dovgalenko insisted there will not be a power vacuum, saying: “Countries like us and China have our influence already.”

For his part, Israel’s UN ambassador said the US decision showed there was a “price to pay for discrimination against Israel”.

In a statement, Danny Danon said the decision marked “a new era” at the UN.

Barghouti, of the Palestinian National Initiative, said it is “as if Israel is dictating US policy not only in the Middle East but also in international organisations.

“That’s going to have a very harmful effect on the idea the US being a mediator between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

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