U.S. pulls out of United Nations cultural body, cites 'anti-Israel' bias

Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization logo is at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris France

Chris Hegadorn, the U.S. Charge d'Affaires and ranking U.S. representative to UNESCO, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the decision to pull out was linked to "the unfortunate politicization of the mandate of UNESCO, where anti-Israel bias has been a major factor and something the U.S. has been struggling to address".

Washington said it would establish an "observer mission" to replace its representation at the agency.

Unesco director-general Irina Bokova, who is Bulgarian, expressed "profound regret" at the decision and said the departure was a loss for "the United Nations family" and for multilateralism. Currently, 23 places in the United States are on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, though nothing American appears in the organization's list of "intangible cultural heritage".

As a permanent observer to the organization, the United States would still be able to voice its opinion about matters to the body, but not vote on issues as a member.

She said the United States and Unesco matter to each other more than ever now because "the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security".

She said: "The United States will continue to evaluate all agencies within the United Nations system through the same lens".

"This decision was not taken lightly", according to a State Department statement on Thursday.

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The US has long used UNESCO as a stage for political gestures: In 1984, the Ronald Reagan withdrew the US from UNESCO, accusing it of being pro-Soviet, anti-Israel, and anti-free market. Israel has accused UNESCO of making a politically motivated move, part of what it says is an attempt to deny the Jewish character and heritage of certain key sites in the Holy Land.

USA officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries.

Nauert also clarified that, in accordance with the charter of UNESCO, the decision on "the USA withdrawal will enter into force on December 31, 2018". It extended membership to Palestine in 2011.

In addition, the Trump administration's proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains no provision for the possibility that Unesco funding restrictions might be lifted.

In July, the agency again delighted Palestinians when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered World Heritage site. "The organisation's absurd and shameful resolutions against Israel have consequences".

"Among other efforts, UNESCO is committed to building the capacity of various individuals and stakeholders to develop and amplify innovative responses against extremism; all while promoting the protection of freedom of expression, privacy and other fundamental freedoms", Bokova wrote in a CNN op-ed in September.

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