Why the United States Is Saying Goodbye to UNESCO

Oct 12, 2017

The Trump Administration says the U.S. is withdrawing from the United Nations' cultural body UNESCO, citing "anti-Israel bias" as one of its reasons.

"This decision was not taken lightly," Heather Nauert, State Department spokesperson, said in a statement on Thursday. "[it] reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO." The withdrawal will take place on Dec. 31, 2018. The State Department said on Thursday that the U.S. will instead establish an observer mission at UNESCO, which is known for designating world heritage sites.

Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova expressed her "profound regret" with the decision. "This is a loss to UNESCO. This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism," she said in a statement.

The news comes as the body picks its new director-general, with former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay and Qatari diplomat Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari as the main frontrunners. Here's what to know:

What is UNESCO?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was created in 1945 with a mission to celebrate cultural diversity and foster intellectual cooperation and the free flow of ideas among the world's nations. Among its first projects was to rebuild libraries, schools and museums destroyed during World War Two.

The agency is best known for its World Heritage program, which protects traditions and cultural sites across the globe, including India's Taj Mahal and the United States' Yellowstone National Park. It also works to improve education in poor countries, defend media freedom and promote scientific advances.

Why has Trump pulled out now?

The biggest strain is the body's approach to Israel. This year, UNESCO declared Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian world heritage site — a move Israel says negates Judaism's links to the town.

Israel had earlier recalled its ambassador to UNESCO in 2016, in response to the agency accepting resolutions that condemned Israel's policies in religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and cited the Temple Mount as only a "Muslim holy site of worship," Reuters reports.

Trump's administration has been preparing to leave the body for months, Foreign Policy reports, and it might have been motivated by budget cuts. The President has repeatedly criticized what he considers to be the disproportionate contributions to international bodies like the U.N.

Has the U.S. done this before?

Yes. The organization ran afoul of the administration of Ronald Reagan, which withdrew the U.S. from the body in 1984 citing corruption and a pro-Soviet union, anti-U.S. bias. The administration also viewed UNESCO as a platform for Third World criticism of Israel and the U.S, the New York Times reports.

Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. rejoined the agency in 2003, citing its reformed bureaucracy, finances and efforts to expunge the worst of its biases.

That changed again in 2011 after UNESCO granted full membership to Palestine. This reinforced the notion of UNESCO's long-running anti-Israel bias and under former U.S. President Barack Obama, UNESCO lost a chunk of American funding. But the State Department continued to maintain an office at UNESCO's Paris headquarters so as to weigh in on policy.

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