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U.S. Pulls Out of Unesco for the Second Time

Citing bias against Israel, the U.S. breaks ties with UN agency it helped found

Cambodia's Angkor Wat, one of more than 1,000 world heritage sites designated by UNESCO (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)
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The United States will pull itself out of the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) for the second time, the State Department announced today.

"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 at Unesco," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. The withdrawal will occur at the end of next year, at which point the U.S. plans to take on permanent observer status, joining the Holy See as the only other member nation with that status.

Later in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's office issued a statement instructing its foreign ministry to prepare for the country's withdrawal from Unesco "in parallel with the U.S."

This isn't the first time that the U.S. has left Unesco, writes Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy. Similar disagreements about perceived bias toward the Soviet Union drove the administration of President Ronald Reagan to leave the organization in 1984. The U.S. government remained on the outside for 18 years before President George W. Bush rejoined Unesco in 2002, declaring that the organization had been "reformed." (The United Kingdom, which left Unesco in partnership with the U.S. in 1984, rejoined in 1997.)

The United States was a founding member of Unesco in 1945, and wrote a preamble to its constitution.  With a motto of "building peace in the minds of men and women," the agency helps promote literacy, women's equality, sex education, clean water and more around the world, Gardiner Harris and Steven Erlanger of the New York Times report.

However, since its creation, Unesco has become most well known for maintaining a list of more than 1,000 world heritage sites, locations worldwide that the agency deems worthy of protection for historical, cultural or scientific purposes. Unesco's designations are usually welcomed and uncontroversial, but they can occasionally become politically charged, notes Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post.

In a separate statement, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that Unesco's July designation of two world heritage sites in Palestine played into the decision for the U.S. to withdraw.

The U.S.'s accumulating arrears was another reason. At one point, the U.S. paid 22 percent of Unesco's budget, but it hasn't provided funding to the organization since it admitted Palestine as a member in 2011, Lynch notes. The U.S. had its voting rights revoked in 2013 as a result, and the country's debt to the organization now stands around $600 million.

In a statement, director-general Irina Bokova expressed her disappointment about the decision. ​"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.

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