Siding With Suitables

Nikki Haley

US quit UNESCO only to justify its suitability with global institutions of well repute

By Mridu Kumari

Does the US withdrawal from the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO reflect immaturity of the current regime in the White House? Has it been done out of political reason or sheer desire to put a screw on the flow of American tax payers’ money? The Donald Trump administration’s decision on the issue covers all these aspects. The Paris-based wing of the world body was founded after World War II to protect cultural and natural heritage around the world. It is best known for designating world heritage sites such as Agra’s Taj Mahal, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple, Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra and others. The US provides one fifth of the total UNESCO funding. But it withdrew itself from the cultural wing of the world body as Israel quit it citing its biasness towards the country.

In fact, seed of resentment among leaders from Israel, the US and others was sown when UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member in 2011. The US and Israel were among 14 of 194 UN members that voted against admitting Palestine. However, Washington took financial route to relieve itself from UNESCO membership. The US currently owes more than $500 million to it. Since 2011, it stopped funding the organization. In 2013, after the US missed several rounds of payment to UNESCO, the world body suspended US voting rights in its core decision making bodies. In that way the US has not been a real UNESCO member for the past several years. Trump just made the status official and tried to score a political point by tying with Israeli cause.

“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova expressed her disappointment, “At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the US to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.

But this is not the first time when the US has withdrawn from the organization.  In 1984 when Ronald Regan was the US President, Washington had pulled itself from UNESCO, claiming the organization was biased in favour of the Soviet Union. President George W Bush had allowed the US to rejoin the organization in 2002. Therefore, the US has a history of joining and withdrawing from UNESCO. It joins the organization when it suits its political interest and withdraws it when it goes against it. These developments, however, show the US’ arms twisting tactics. European countries like Germany, France and others don’t always toe American lines, even though they are all NATO members and have common views on several international issues. These European countries which value human rights, liberalism and democracy, have always have itchy relationship with Israel because of its anti-Palestinians’ stand. Also across the world, Israel has not made a mark as a responsible country. Its international stake is not as strong as rock.

Hence, it doesn’t enjoy smooth relationship with multilateral body like UN or its other wings. Last year, Tel Aviv recalled its ambassador to UNESCO following the passage of several resolutions that Israelis claim soured their cultural and religious ties to Jerusalem. Israel got expected support from the US after it withdrew from the organization. Before that, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley attacked UNESCO for designating Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs-two major monuments in the area as Palestinian territory.

“US taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense,” she said recently. This move of the Trump administration has not been welcomed by Democrats. They were quick to lacerate the US government’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO. Besides criticizing the Trump administration for its decision on UNESCO, Ben Rhodes, the former foreign policy adviser to former President Barack Obama attacked the present US regime on Paris climate and Iran nuclear deal issues too.

“Why would any country trust US to keep agreements,” Rhodes tweeted. “Trump pulled the US out of UNESCO,” tweeted Democrat representative Pramila Jayapal. “Making it clear that culture, history, world heritage isn’t important to him, even if it is to Americans & world.” Such resentment has been shared by other world leaders too. But one should not live in isolation on the issue. In fact, the Trump administration has been preparing for a withdrawal for months, and a decision was expected before the end of the year, according to some US officials. Several diplomats who were to have been posted to the mission this summer were told that their positions were on hold and advised to seek other jobs.

Signs of the US quitting UNESCO got reflected in the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal also. It didn’t contain any provision for the possibility that UNESCO funding restrictions might be lifted. Lack of staffing and funding plans for the UN organization by the US have been accompanied by repeated denunciations of UNESCO by senior US officials. Some experts say that the US and Israel’s withdrawal from the organization suggest that it has outlived its utility. But it is not a holistic view. Rather fact is that it runs array of worthwhile programmes on issues ranging from education to tsunami warning. Then its support to Holocaust education has been recognized world over. It is admitted that it is not as prominent or geopolitically significant as the UN Security Council. Yet UNESCO being a natural venue for countries that want to engage in ideological protest without causing too much confusion and chaos in the international system can’t be discounted.