Politics and Implications of US Withdrawal from the UNESCO
Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee

On Thursday, 12th October, 2017, the Trump Administration abruptly announced that United States would withdraw from its membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation or the UNESCO. Israel made a similar announcement shortly afterwards. There was speculation in Israeli media that Israel had not been consulted by the US in advance. The timing was unfortunate since it was on the eve of the final round of voting for the post of Director General (DG) UNESCO, among the candidates from Qatar and France.

It is possible that the US announcement of its formal withdrawal may have indirectly pressurised a deeply polarised Executive Board to elect the French candidate. The vote share of the French candidate, Audrey Azoulay, the soft spoken and cultured former French Culture Minister of former President Holland, rose steadily with each round. She won on Friday, 13th October, 2017, in the runoff against Qatar's Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, who had been dogged by accusation of anti-Semitism. The new DG-designate who will be confirmed on the 10th November, 2017, had spent some years in Morocco and is a Jew. Clearly, UNESCO had voted in favour of the values enshrined in the UNESCO’s Constitution, liberal democratic and anti-fundamentalist values, much required in the present international scenario and represented by France, the host country and Madame Azoulay.

The US-UNESCO crisis originated in 2011 during the Obama Administration. It originated in the decision taken by the Executive Board in October, 2011, under the stewardship of a new and inexperienced DG, Irina Bokova, to admit Palestine as an independent member-state. The US and Israel were among just 14 of 194 members that voted against admitting the Palestinians. This triggered a US law which cuts off American funding for any multi-lateral organisation with Palestine as Member State. The earlier Japanese DG, Matsura, had always persuaded the Board not to vote on this sensitive matter.

Repercussions were quick to be felt. The Organisation had to cut back on many programmes because of a serious financial crisis. US’ assessed contribution at that time was 22 percent ($80 million) of UNESCO’s annual budget. Washington’s arrears on its $80 million annual dues are now over $500 million. Clearly, the Trump Administration was looking for a way out to avoid payment. USA should have lost its voting rights immediately. After repeatedly urging USA to pay or lose these rights, finally in 2013, UNESCO suspended US voting rights. Although this is not the first time that the United States had pulled out of UNESCO (President Ronald Reagan withdrew in 1984, accusing the organisation of pro-Soviet bias and graft), this time round the decision is more complex since it is based on US law on funding which cannot be changed easily. Earlier, with the election of a DG of their choice, the US had been able to rejoin under George W. Bush in 2002. This looks more difficult now. After formal withdrawal, the US will become what the UN calls a ‘non-member observer state’ in UNESCO, allowed to send representatives to UNESCO meetings but not vote in them. Their ability to influence decision making will be immediately impacted.

The US move underscores the scepticism expressed by President Donald Trump about the need for the US to remain engaged in multi-lateral bodies which pursues perceived anti-American policies. President Trump has touted an “America First” policy, which puts US economic and national interests ahead of international commitments. As a result, the United States has abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and has formally withdrawn from the Paris Climate Deal. Washington is also reportedly reviewing its membership of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, which it also accuses of an anti-Israeli bias. A conservative US Administration had also been unhappy with several ‘anti-Israel’ actions taken this year. In May, 2017, UNESCO adopted by a huge majority a resolution that classified Israel as an “Occupying Power.” The decision was supported by the European Union. Israel accused Germany of not blocking the resolution and summoned the Swedish ambassador over Sweden’s support for the resolution. Later, Israel and US condemned UNESCO’s decision at the World Heritage Committee Meeting in July, 2017, to designate Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, both located in the West Bank, as Palestinian heritage sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Observers have been quick to point out that the US decision, at the very least, may not make things better. It might even encourage UNESCO members to take a more hardline position on Israel-Palestine issues. Gowan, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes, “Trump will be able to sell the narrative that he is tough on the UN, despite actually walking back from some of his harshest demands in New York for financial cuts. Non-Western countries like China will trumpet that this is a sign of US disengagement from the world. In a funny way, it's a win-win!” Gowan also tries to make the point that, like Brexit, this divorce was inevitable. He argues, “It’s like as if a couple who had been living apart for years finally agreed to a divorce.” The decision may have been taken on a hasty and wrong presumption that Qatar, backed by Iran, was the winning candidate. With the election of a French DG who is also Jewish there is speculation that her election may result in a rethink in the US-Israeli’s decision to withdraw. In that event, the new DG-designate could persuade US to release some of these dues indirectly and provide some relief to UNESCO which is facing a serious financial crunch.

UNESCO and its supporters can only anxiously wait and watch. As a founder Member of UNESCO, India too has vital stakes in the sound financial health and political stability of the Organisation. India would no doubt, given its close and strategic partnership with the US and Israel, play an important role in persuading both to return to an Organisation of seminal importance for international peace and security. Its Preamble, drafted by an American immediately after World War II, simply notes: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”


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