Saro Thiruppathy runs through the reasons for the latest spat between the US and UNESCO

When the US informed the world that it was pulling out of UNESCO next year, many may have echoed my own thoughts: “So what’s new?” US President Donald Trump is forever withdrawing from agreements like the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and threatening to pull out from others like NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal.

The President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass has termed this phenomenon the ‘withdrawal doctrine.’

While other countries have quit many organisations in protest, the US is the biggest quitter. In addition to these agreements, it pulled out of Interpol in 1950 for eight years, and the ILO from (1977 to 1980) and the International Criminal Court in 2002.

The fact that Uncle Sam’s credibility is disappearing at a rate of knots doesn’t seem to faze the world’s only superpower, which is seemingly trying hard to withdraw into itself in the light of its president’s bid to ‘make America great again’ – by alienating pretty much every nation on the planet.

ONGOING SAGA Getting back to the UNESCO issue, this is in fact a saga that began in 1942 during World War II.

During the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME), participants were engaged in developing ways of reconstructing education in the world following the end of the war. It was this endeavour that resulted in a future conference in London in November 1945 to establish an education and cultural organisation.

At the time, the UN was yet in its early days and the 44 participating countries decided to form UNESCO. By the time the conference concluded, 37 of the participating nations had agreed on the constitution of the UN body. The preamble to the constitution declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

The founding members decided that UNESCO would promote a culture of peace, establish an ‘intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind,’ and prevent another world war. UNESCO formally came into force on 4 November 1946 and 71 years later, it boasts a membership of 195 members.

CORE MISSION Although best-known for its declaration of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO’s core mission is to act as an anti-extremist organisation. Among its many key programmes is conducting genocide awareness, non-discrimination and ethnic tolerance using the example of the genocide of Jews during the Holocaust.

In fairness to the Trump administration, this isn’t the first time that relations between the US and UNESCO have soured. Their association took a hit in December 1984 when (during the tenure of President Ronald Reagan) the US formally ended 38 years’ association with UNESCO citing politicisation, pro-Soviet bias and financial irresponsibility.

Further, the US was at odds with Director General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow under whose stewardship UNESCO was promoting a ‘new world information order,’ which the Western media considered a threat.

In a change of heart (which took 18 years in the making) however, the George W. Bush administration in 2002 decided that the US would rejoin UNESCO, and it seemed like all was going well for the newlyweds the second time around.

But trouble was waiting around the corner when in 2011, the irrepressible UN body voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a member state. Before the ink was even dry, UNESCO’s decision had triggered a US law that cut funding to any organisation that recognised an independent Palestine.

America’s yearly financial contribution at the time was US$ 80 million – that’s 22 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget. So when the US continuously failed to meet is financial obligations to UNESCO, the UN agency suspended its voting rights
in 2013.

This meant that in reality, the United States has not been active for some time and the Trump administration is only legitimising the parting of ways.

LAST STRAW? However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was UNESCO’s decision in July to recognise the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage Site. As one would imagine, Israel was apoplectic and tried furiously to derail the UNESCO ruling.

Hebron includes a holy site known to Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham (Ibrahimi mosque) and to the Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

UNESCO’s ruling also put Hebron on its ‘danger list,’ which allows the allocation
of urgent World Heritage Fund assistance. Hebron has a population of a few hundred Jewish settlers who live under heavy Israel military protection in the middle of a Palestinian population of around 200,000 souls.

In a press release, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley delivered a scathing attack on the UN agency: “The UNESCO vote on Hebron is tragic on several levels. It represents an affront to history. It undermines the trust that is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be successful… Today’s vote does no one any good and causes much harm.”

HEFTY TAB But beneath all the huffing and puffing on behalf of its best pal Israel is arguably a more practical reason for the US to quit UNESCO, and that is because it currently owes US$ 550 million in dues. By December next year, the tab will surpass 600 million dollars.

So it seems that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan is to check out without settling the tab – and thereby exacerbate the loss of credibility that the US is experiencing across the globe.