(CNSNews.com) – The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization comes 33 years after President Reagan left amid concerns about mismanagement and an agenda viewed as corrosively anti-Western.
Shortly before Reagan pulled out in 1984, UNESCO planned to set up a “new world information order” to counteract what it said was a Western-dominated flow of information. It proposed that journalists be licensed and an international code of press ethics be established.
Critics called the agency a mouthpiece for pro-Soviet sentiment.
President Bush took the U.S. back into the Paris-based body in 2003, saying it had made important reforms under its then-Japanese director-general, who had taken the helm in 1999.
But over the decade-and-a-half since its historically biggest funder returned, UNESCO has if anything taken an even more troubling direction, seen particularly in its blatantly politicized stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In its announcement of the decision to withdraw for a second time, the State Department cited three issues – concerns with mounting arrears, the need for reforms, and “continuing anti-Israel bias.”
The need for reforms was highlighted, again, late last year, when a British government review of its funding to multilateral organizations criticized UNESCO for a “lack of transparency” and “systemic weaknesses in the management of core funding and organizational effectiveness.”
Of all the international organizations assessed in the review, UNESCO alone received a score of “weak,” and the government warned that its funding to UNESCO was in jeopardy.
UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, however, dismissed the criticism, saying the report was “based on a flawed methodology” and underestimated the agency’s achievements.
For years Islamic states, supported by allies that include some of the world’s most repressive regimes (current executive board members include Iran, Qatar, Russia, China, Algeria, Sudan and Vietnam) have redirected UNESCO’s agenda in support of the Palestinian cause, targeting in particular Jewish historical heritage in areas claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent state.
The process picked up momentum after UNESCO in 2011 became the first U.N. agency to admit “Palestine” – a political entity lacking national sovereignty – as a full member.
That decision cost the agency dearly, since U.S. laws passed in 1990 and 1994 prohibit federal funding for “the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states,” and for “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”
As U.S. taxpayers accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget, the funding cutoff which the Obama administration reluctantly implemented was a severe blow. Until the suspension, U.S. funding had amounted to some $80 million a year, plus a further $3-$4 million a year in extra-budgetary funds.
As of this year, the United States “owes” UNESCO $542.6 million in dues not paid since the cutoff, including $143.6 million assessed for the 2016-2017 biennium. Those escalating arrears were referred to in the State Department’s statement explaining the decision to withdraw.
While it rattled the agency’s finances, the admission of the Palestinians also cost Israel, as the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) was now able to use its membership to help drive agenda in ways that undermined Israeli claims and strengthened its own.
Even before the Palestinians’ admission, UNESCO bodies had regularly voted in favor of resolutions bolstering Muslim claims to sites whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years, most notably the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the traditional burial place in Hebron of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When Israel tried to counter the barrage, UNESCO criticized that as well. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu included on Israel’s own national heritage list two sites that are located in territory claimed by the Palestinians – the Hebron burial place as well as the traditional burial site in Bethlehem of Rachel, Jacob’s wife – UNESCO hit back, passing a resolution declaring that the two sites “are an integral part of Palestine.”
The Obama administration strongly criticized such politicized measures, although each year it continued to ask Congress to provide a waiver to enable it to restore UNESCO funding. Congress refused.
The funding freeze resulted in the U.S. losing its voting rights in UNESCO’s 195-member general conference in 2013. (According to the UNESCO constitution a member state loses its vote “if the total amount of contributions due from it exceeds the total amount of contributions payable by it for the current year and the immediately preceding calendar year.”
The Obama administration and other proponents of engagement with the U.N. pointed to that loss of vote in arguing for the restoration of funding. The U.S. was not, however, prevented from membership in the more important executive board. In fact the U.S. has held a seat on the 58-member board since 2015 and would have done so until 2019, although this week’s decision will change that.
Bokova in a statement deplored the U.S. withdrawal decision, listing areas of UNESCO activity which are in line with U.S. interests and priorities, including protecting heritage sites in the Middle East in the face of terrorist attacks, promoting literacy, Holocaust education, education for women and press freedom.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
UNESCO controversies have not been limited to its dealing Israel and Palestinian heritage issues. Others during the Obama administration included:
–A 2011 decision to grant an award sponsored by an African dictator. U.S.-led pressure eventually stymied the attempt to name the award for Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, but he continued to fund and to be closely associated with the “UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.”
–A decision in 2013 to add the writings of “Che” Guevara to UNESCO’s “Memory of the World Register,” which in meant to collate and celebrate some of the human race’s most significant heritage.
–A 2012 decision to establish a UNESCO chair at the Islamic University of Gaza, an institution with close links to the Hamas terrorist group.
–A 2011 decision reappointing Syria to a committee dealing with human rights. A U.S.-led effort to expel Syria from the committee failed, in favor of a watered-down resolution that criticized the Assad regime for abuses but did not call for its removal.
–A plan to allow Iran to host UNESCO’s annual World Philosophy Day event in 2010. Under pressure from the U.S. and others, Bokova disassociated the agency from the Tehran event.