US Withdrawal From UNESCO

The recent news of US quitting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has shocked the world. Not only is US one of the most important funding member of the UNESCO (in fact the UN as a whole) but is also a founding member of the UN. The primary reason behind this act has been cited as ‘anti-Israel bias’ in the UNESCO.


The main aim of UNESCO is to promote educational, scientific and cultural development of member nations. Some of its main works include designating World Heritage sites in countries across the world and sponsoring cultural and intellectual activities in different nations. Some of its programmes related to spreading awareness with respect to tsunami warning and holocaust education in the countries are very significant.

One of the important characteristics of functioning of this organization is that it is not as geopolitically prominent as the UN Security Council which frames guidelines of international law that becomes binding on the nations.  This helps in taking ideological steps in helping war-torn countries resort to peace. The member nations use the UNESCO as a means of symbolic protest towards any international order. Unlike in case of Security Council, here the country can carry out its protest without bringing any immediate effect on the international system which may result from a new binding resolution passed by the UN Security Council. Examples of such occurrences were seen in 1984 when the Reagan administration used the UNESCO to indicate its protest against the pro-Soviet bias being reflected by the UN. Palestine too which failed to produce a peace agreement at the UN owing to the US sponsored negotiations however pushed itself to atleast  become a member of the UNESCO. While Palestine managed to enter the UNESCO in 2011 it still could not draw a peace agreement with Israel using this platform, indicating the futility of the platform.

Causes of Withdrawal

Some of the main causes of withdrawal of US are discussed below:

Anti-Israel bias

This step by US has been notified to have been taken in support of Israel’s protests. When Palestine was admitted a s a full member in 2011, USA and Israel were the 14 out of 194 countries that had voted against admitting Palestine. Although US made its stand clear on the creation of fully independent State of Palestine, it did not want it to come this way. Rather it wanted a conclusion of peace talks as a result of which the independence should emerge. It believes that admitting the country in such situation of turmoil into an international organization would be indirectly recognizing its independent status not gained in the right way. The US has also cited bias by the UNESCO when it went on to designate cultural heritage sites in Jerusalem and the territories of Palestine and did not heed to similar requests by Israel.

Concern over functioning

US has also shown concerns over the functioning of the UNESCO. It sought immediate reforms in its functions, especially with respect to spending in programmes. It followed Israel’s claim that the UNESCO promoted fake history when it designated Hebron and the two adjoined shrines-the Jewish Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Muslim Ibrahimi Mosque as ‘Palestine World Heritage Site in Danger.’ This is alleged to have been demarcated in response to an Arab-backed UNESCO resolution that had condemned the policies of Israel towards the religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Impact of US Withdrawal


US funds nearly one fifth of total budget of UNESCO every year. In fact, a decision by US to withhold funds since 2011 has resulted in a financial crisis in the UNESCO. The cut-off of funding has had such an impact on the UNESCO that it has not only cut short the additional activities carried out by it but also some significant ones like environmental and educational activities.

Along with the US there may be other countries as well who may follow suit. Israel has already welcomed this step as brave and moral. It may also cut off funds. It is also feared that in retaliation to US actions, some countries may withdraw their financial support. The UNESCO is already an organization that lives with huge dues from the members who never pay on time. Further, cut will lead to a complete fall in its financial condition.

On United States

The withdrawal of US has not been seen as a positive step by the UNESCO. There may be some retaliatory actions taken by the organization as a punishment for this step by US. This organization is mostly dominated by non-western countries. Their influence will further increase on removal of such an important member. Most importantly, the country is willing to maintain an observer status in the organization.

However, these actions will not impact the Trump administration as it already has a major elite support with respect to pro-Israel policies. The security interests, which become the biggest threat for a country on withdrawal from an international organization, would not be so in case of US.  So, the impact on US is likely to be minimal or negligible.

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