The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is not unique among U.N. agencies in having strayed far from its purpose to become a political playground — the U.N. Human Rights Council tops that list — but for several reasons it deserves to be the testing ground for the Trump administration’s policy of pressing the United Nations for change.
UNESCO’s oft-cited hostility toward Israel is only one of those reasons.
UNESCO is supposed to be a stalwart in the global fight to preserve cultural heritage and spread the gifts of education, science and free expression. But it has an ugly history of promoting an agenda antithetical to American values.
President Ronald Reagan pulled the United States out of UNESCO in 1984 because of the Soviet dominance of its educational programs. It wasn’t until George W. Bush’s first administration that the United States rejoined in 2002.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States stopped paying its UNESCO assessment (more than $70 million in 2016) because of a law passed under President Bill Clinton that bars U.S. funding to any U.N. agency that admits “Palestine” as a nation, something UNESCO did in 2011. That action occurred on the watch of the current UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, an alumna of the Bulgarian Communist Party who is widely reported to be a favorite of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. She knew the consequences of admitting the Palestinians and did so anyway.
UNESCO says the United States owes it more than $550 million in unpaid assessments, and those arrears are the first reason the State Department offered in its withdrawal announcement Thursday, Oct. 12.
The second reason, the need for fundamental reform at UNESCO, could apply to most arms of the bureaucracy-laden United Nations. But the position of Bashar Assad’s Syria on the UNESCO human rights committee during its brutal civil war and the election of Sudan’s genocidal regime to the executive board in 2015 reflect how far the agency has wandered from its declared mission to help build peace, eradicate poverty and promote intercultural dialogue.
It’s no surprise that an agency with Syria and Sudan in leadership positions would rather pass resolutions criticizing Israel than protect heritage sites, and UNESCO’s blatant anti-Israel bias is the third reason the United States cited for its withdrawal.
From 2009 to 2014, UNESCO passed 46 anti-Israel resolutions, one critical of Syria and none against any other nation. Those resolutions don’t include the measures enacted last year that seek to sever any link between Jewish history and the land of Israel.
While the United States had ample justification to exit UNESCO beyond Israel, the U.S. government deserves praise for standing up for a close ally and remaining true to its principles — and those of UNESCO — by refusing to go along with the weaponization of an agency dedicated to peace and international cooperation.
Crucially, the decision is not irrevocable. The United States has asked for observer status and could return to full membership, just as it did 15 years ago. We’re hopeful that Bokova’s newly elected successor, Audrey Azoulay, who is French and Jewish, will guide the agency back toward its intended path.