Last Thursday, the Trump administration officially announced plans to pull out of UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The United States originally left the organization in protest in 1984, citing a pro-Soviet Union bias, only to return in 2002. The most recent departure was announced by the Trump administration as being due to their pro-Israel bias. Despite all the political controversy, the actual purpose of the organization is fairly innocuous. UNESCO’s primary function is to designate and protect international landmarks known as “world heritage sites”, such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, their funding goes towards education and cultural programs around the world, including literacy programs and holocaust education.
While this move is certainly in line with Trump’s distrust of the U.N. and international agreements as a whole, this is really just the last step in a slow departure which began in 2011. UNESCO voted 107 to 14 to recognize Palestine as an independent state and participant, with France, China, Russia, and India in favor, the United States, Canada, and Germany against, and the UK abstaining. This triggered a 1990 US law prohibiting funding towards any UN body which recognizes Palestine as a state. Up to this time, the United States was providing 22% of the funding for UNESCO. The organization responded by suspending US voting rights two years later, delegating the US as a non-member observer. After years of limbo, Trump’s decision to leave unilaterally puts any hopes of rectifying the dispute to rest.
Historical sites can have a lot more political power than some would expect. UNESCO’s decision last July to designate part of the West Bank city of Hebron as not only a Palestinian world heritage site, but one that is actively endangered can be seen as a strong repudiation of Israel’s actions in the region. Historical sites have often been used by the state to justify pushing Palestinians out of certain regions. UNESCO’s activism in this area caused them to be accused of not “truly promoting culture and education” by a State Department spokesperson.
While leaving UNESCO may have seemed fated to be since 2011, following through on this departure can have lasting effects on the ability of the United States to maintain power and influence around the world. Reneging on our agreements makes us look untrustworthy, and only serves to breed division. Other countries may follow our lead and stop payments towards UNESCO. If the hope of the Trump administration was really to maintain a balance between Israeli and Palestinian interests on the international level, leaving UNESCO only makes that harder. With one of the biggest sponsors of Israel no longer funding the organization, Israel may be forced to make more concessions to the Palestinians. Ultimately, this is still a victory for conservatives, who broadly oppose the UN as a whole.
- Explore UNESCO: UNESCO does a lot more than designate world heritage sites. You can learn more on their website.
- Donate to the American Task Force on Palestine: The ATFP is a nonprofit organization based in Washington that aims to educate the American people about the national security interests of the U.S. in establishing a Palestinian state.
- Learn more about UNESCO’s decision to designate Hebron as a world heritage site: Here is an article written for The Guardian in July examining the full implications of UNESCO’s decision, which may have been a major factor in the decision to leave.
This brief was compiled by Colin Shanley. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.