Robert Harneis-TDO-(FRANCE) The United States has announced that it is withdrawing from the Paris based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.N.’s cultural and educational agency, complaining about the way it is run and about what Washington described as bias against Israel.

Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, issued a statement in which she said ‘At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.

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.

This is why I regret the withdrawal of the United States.

This is a loss to UNESCO.

This is a loss to the United Nations family.

This is a loss for multilateralism.’

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, ‘This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias,’.

The withdrawal of the United States, which provides a fifth of UNESCO’s funding, is obviously a blow for the Paris-based organization which began work in 1946 and is known for designating World Heritage sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and the Grand Canyon National Park.

Under UNESCO rules, the withdrawal will become effective as of the end of December 2018. Until that time, the United States, which provides around $80 million to UNESCO annually, will remain a full member.

The organization, which employs around 2,000 people worldwide, most of them based in Paris, has long been the object of criticism over its use of resources and resolutions that have been perceived by Israel and other countries as biased.

Danny Danon, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, said ‘We are entering a new era at the United Nations, where those who discriminate against Israel must pay the price’.

A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said ‘We regret the American decision to withdraw from UNESCO, where the support of the International Community is vital.’ She added Our candidature for the post of director general takes on a new significance in the circumstances’.

UNESCO is in the process of electing a new Director. After three days of secret balloting that could run until Friday, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France’s Audrey Azoulay are tied to win the top post at the organization, with Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab in third. Two other candidates trail. Voting lasts over a maximum five rounds. If the two finalists end level, they draw lots.

Britain is still committed to UNESCO, PM May's spokesman has said.

UNESCO is not the most important agency of the United Nations but the move indicates President Trump’s interest in pleasing Israel, whilst at the same time appealing to domestic US opinion where the UN generally is not very popular. It is also a foretaste of US attitudes to the main United Nations if it does not get what it wants in the future. To that extent it is a warning to the rest of the world from Washington.

Paradoxically, an undoubted side effect will be to cause the European nations especially France, already troubled by US attitudes, to reflect on relations with the US and the need for greater independence in policy making in the future. 

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