The United States is withdrawing from the United Nation’s world heritage body UNESCO, effective Dec. 31, the US State Department said in a statement on Thursday citing “continuing anti-Israel bias” and “mounting arrears”.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” the department said.
The US would seek to “remain engaged … as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise”, the statement added.
UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, said she had received a formal notification of withdrawal from the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
In 2011 the US canceled its budget contribution to Unesco in protest against the admission of Palestine as a full member.
In a statement Bokova expressed her “profound regret” over the US decision. “This is not just about World Heritage,” she said, describing the withdrawal as “a loss to both the organization and the US”.
According to a report by Foreign Policy magazine, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision several weeks ago at the UN General Assembly, but the State Department urged Washington to remain in the organization until a new director general is voted in the coming weeks.
After two days of a secret ballot that could run until Friday, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari is leading France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian hopeful Moushira Khattab.
The emergence of Kawari has been seen by Israel and the US as a failure of their efforts to secure the post for a figure they regard as more friendly.
Earlier this week Israel’s UNESCO ambassador described the trajectory of voting in the secret ballots as “bad news for the organization and unfortunately also for Israel”.
The US previously withdrew from UNESCO under Ronald Reagan, only to rejoin under George W Bush.
UNESCO has drawn the ire of Israel and the Trump administration for a series of decisions, including the listing of Hebron, a city in the southern part of the occupied Palestinian territories, as a Palestinian world heritage site.