WASHINGTON: In a preview of the shape of things to come in an inward-looking, isolationist but combative America under President Trump, the United States announced on Thursday it is withdrawing from Unesco, the UN cultural outfit, citing its "anti-Israel bias" among other things.
The US State Department said in a statement that it has notified Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova of the US decision to withdraw from the organization and to seek to establish a permanent observer mission to Unesco, which would "continue to informally engage with it."
"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at Unesco, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at Unesco," the US statement said.
But the US also conveyed to the Director General its desire to remain engaged with Unesco as a non-member observer state "in order to contribute US 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."
Although the withdrawal decision came from the Trump dispensation, it was the Obama administration that began to distance Washington from the Paris-headquartered Unesco as far back as 2011 when it cut off funding the organization after it admitted Palestine Authority as a full member. Consequently, the US lost its vote in the organization in 2013.
Matters worsened in July this year when Unesco declared the ancient town of Hebron in Israeli-occupied West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage Site, enraging Tel Aviv.
Although Unesco's mandate covers education and science, it is best known for its World Heritage program, which helps preserve cultural sites of import around the globe - including 36 sites in sixth ranked India, out of 1073 sites across the world.
The US itself is ranked tenth with only 23 World Heritage Sites, of which a dozen are natural heritage sites such as national parks. Italy (53), China (52), Spain (46), France (43), Germany (42), all have more heritage sites than the US, giving Washington little incentive to invest or maintain leadership of the organization, where it is also-ran among a pack of European nations. Even Mexico (34) has more heritage sites than the US.