Politics & Policy

Good Riddance to UNESCO

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France (Reuters photo: Philippe Wojazer)

It was easy to miss it during a hectic week, but on Thursday, the United States announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Good riddance.

In 2011, the U.S. substantially cut funding to UNESCO after the organization granted the Palestinian Authority full membership. But while Barack Obama asked Congress to restore funding, the Trump administration has taken the appropriate next step.

UNESCO’s embrace of the Palestinians in 2011 was par for the course for an organization that is a dependable opponent of Israel. In 2012, UNESCO declared the Church of the Nativity to be a World Heritage Site in Danger, ignoring the objections of the U.S., Israel, and the three churches that preside over it. That was a victory for the Palestinians, who claim Bethlehem as their own and say that Israel endangers the site. The next year, the organization’s executive board issued six condemnations of Israel (and honored Che Guevara, the Communist mercenary). It announced in 2016 that the Temple Mount had no connection to Judaism, referring to it only as the “Al-Aqsa Mosque”: The Wailing Wall became the “Buraq Plaza,” and Israel the “occupying power” in Jerusalem. UNESCO’s stated mission is to promote peace and security, but in practice it is just another international institution giving shelter to the world’s ugliest ideas.

It was never appropriate for the U.S. to support UNESCO so long as it remained a nakedly political lobby. That’s something Ronald Reagan understood. In 1984, Reagan withdrew the U.S. from UNESCO back when the group, led by Amadou M. M’Bow, was not just political — anti-Israel as well as pro-Soviet — but corrupt. American diplomat Vernon Walters was fond of pointing out that the Paris-based organization spent 80 percent of its budget in the ritzy 16th arrondissement. Reagan’s decision to leave prompted UNESCO to enact reforms, and in 2002, the Bush administration decided to rejoin. But any reforms have proven temporary, and UNESCO’s return to its old ways is justification enough for Trump’s decision.

Withdrawing makes fiscal and moral sense. Since the U.S. cut off funding to the organization, we have been accruing hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to the group. Critics of Trump’s decision have tended to ignore UNESCO’s contemptible politics and emphasize its other initiatives, which include literacy programs and environmental conservation. But if those programs are jeopardized by a lack of U.S. support, UNESCO has none but itself to blame.

Perhaps this move, like Reagan’s in 1984, will lead to reforms. A State Department official sounded a hopeful note, telling the Washington Post that pulling out “sends a strong message that we need to see fundamental reform.” But opposing Israel and standing against human rights seems to be in the organization’s genes. On Thursday, the UNESCO director-general called the U.S. withdrawal a loss for the “fight against violent extremism.” This from a group that gives harbor to anti-Israel extremists and honors Che Guevara. UNESCO, not the United States, is on the wrong side of that fight.


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