The United States has formally submitted its withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Based in Paris, UNESCO director-general Irian Bokova expressed “profound regret” at the Trump Administration’s decision and highlighted key collaborations with “the United States Geological Survey, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with United States professional societies, to advance research for the sustainable management of water resources [and] agriculture.”
UNESCO is best known for designating heritage sites and biosphere reserves for protection and preservation but was founded on broader principals of combatting extremism and promoting peace.
Many observers have criticized the withdrawal as another blow to science and international collaboration from President Trump.
Rush Holt, CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted in a statement “the continued retrenchment of the U.S. administration from active participation in international diplomacy efforts and dialogue is deeply concerning to the scientific community.”
The U.S. claims that the reason for its withdrawal is a pervasive anti-Israeli bias within UNESCO, and called for fundamental reform. The decision comes three months after UNESCO designated the hotly contested core of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site in danger. Leading officials from both the U.S. and Israel have condemned the designation for diminishing Jewish heritage and damaging diplomacy between Palestine and Israel.
Funding issues may also have factored into the U.S. decision to withdraw. In 2011 after UNESCO recognized Palestine as a state, funds were cut due to a 1990s-era law prohibiting U.S. funding for any U.N. agencies recognizing Palestine as a state. After several years without paying UNESCO dues the U.S. lost its voting rights and became a de facto observer in 2013. The U.S. currently owes UNESCO over $500 million.
The U.S. will officially withdraw from UNESCO on December 21, 2018, and become a non-member observer state. This status will allow the U.S. to continue to contribute American perspectives and expertise, while also halting the annual contributions UNESCO requests.
The U.S. formerly supplied 22% of UNESCO’s annual budget. The organization has a relatively small staff compared to other UN organizations and spends the majority of its budget on education, culture, and natural science departments.
This loss of meaningful U.S. dialogue and participation within UNESCO reflects a diminishing support for international agreements and scientific programs within the Trump Administration. Next month, the U.S. is also expected to withdraw from the internationally hailed Paris Agreement, which went into effect November 2016. This global agreement, signed by 195 countries, lays down the groundwork for curtailing global warming.