Donald Trump’s presidency of the USA continues to court controversy. Last week, it was announced that the USA would withdraw from the international UN body responsible for heritage, UNESCO. Those feeling that President Trump is simply looking to stir up trouble should understand that this is not the first time our American cousins have pulled out of UNESCO. The relationship is a complex one with the backing of Israel that goes back decades.
What is UNESCO?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO, is largely known for international cultural conservation. If you’ve ever visited Stonehenge, you may see that it’s a UN World Heritage Site. This is also true of Avebury, Fountains Abbey, Hadrian’s Wall and many others, but it’s not just about culture; natural features are also part of UNESCO’s conservation remit. Famous British sites on the natural World Heritage list includes Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the Dorset and East Devon coast (known as The Jurassic Coast). Each country has a number of sites submitted to the World Heritage List, monuments believed important to human civilisation as a whole, not just to the country where it was built. This helps the monument or natural feature gain funding and special protection. This is the best-known area of UNESCO, but its reason for being is far broader than this.
What Does UNESCO Do?
Its ultimate purpose is to play a part in international peace and security by fostering educational, scientific and cultural collaboration. This, the UN feels, is one path to achieving global human rights and international justice. They fund and promote education and cultural awareness through some of the following:
• Conservation of monuments – both cultural and natural, for the betterment of the understanding of humanity’s place in the world.
• Promotion of science and the sharing of scientific knowledge for the betterment of all nations and improved quality of life.
• The eradication of poverty through the scientific and cultural education.
• Promoting sustainability especially for the continued preservation of cultural and natural features.
• Less known is their commitment to independent media and press freedom.
It’s notable that all 195 countries in the world are members, including North Korea who submitted – and had accepted – their first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Ten other associate members (not full countries) include the Cook Islands, Faroe Islands and the Cayman Islands, amongst others.
Why has the USA Pulled Out?
Last week, the United States of America gave written and formal notification of its intention to withdraw from UNESCO effective 31st December 2018. Just a few hours later, Israel also announced it would withdraw, citing the bravery of the US in doing so. The relationship between the USA and Israel and UNESCO has been strained for many years. It withdrew during the Reagan administration and re-joined during the George W Bush administration. In 2011, the US halted its budget commitments to UNESCO following the acceptance of Palestine as a full member. The withdrawal triggered last week came due to “continued anti-Israel bias” in a statement from the President.
Away from the war of words, UNESCO has struggled in recent years, most recently coming in for criticism over a secret ballot to select a new President. Many accept that reform is needed but that UNESCO’s work is vital for cultural understanding. That the USA is leaving is unlikely to throw its future into doubt while it has continued back of all other countries.
Senior member states expressed regret at the USA’s decision and hoped it could be reversed. Some have cynically suggested that the decision was fuelled by central budget cuts of the new administration and nothing to do with protection of its ally.