The United States Withdraws Membership From UNESCO


The US has announced that it will officially withdraw its membership from the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on December 31, 2018. The US State Department released a statement regarding its departure on October 12, stating that it will establish a permanent observer mission to UNESCO, citing “concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO” as its reason for withdrawal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised this “courageous and ethical” decision, and wrote on Twitter that “I have instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO in parallel with the United States.” The international community has responded by expressing their concerns for President Trumps calls for “terminating funding to UN bodies that include full Palestinian membership…” which is a US policy. In 2011, the US suspended its payment of membership contributions for UNESCO at the 36th session of the UNESCO General Conference, after the acceptance of the Palestinian membership vote.

Following the announcement, Irina Bokova, former Director General of UNESCO, expressed her “profound regret” at the US decision and that “At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.” The US will remain a nonmember observer state which will allow it to influence perspectives and engage in debates, however; it will have no voting power. The Washington Post reports that one of the driving factors behind this decision is to halt the accumulation of debt it owes to the agency, which will stand at $600 million by 2018.

UNESCO’s mission is to promote humanity’s “shared cultural heritage and values” to counter violence and hatred, defend human rights, celebrate cultural diversity, promote gender equality, and build a sustainable future. Its programs, initiatives, and institutes for education around the world, such as Partnership for Girls and Women’s Education and the Information for All Programme (IFAP), focus on advancing literacy and making technological development equitable in accordance with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. As former Director General Bokova stated, “UNESCO’s work is key to strengthen the bonds of humanity’s common heritage in the face of forces of hatred and division.” This decision comes at a time when violence, hatred, xenophobia and antisemitism are reemerging in the US and abroad. Additionally, the implications of the US withdrawing from UNESCO are grave as it will undermine funding. The US contributes approximately $80 million a year to the agency, according to a spokeswoman for the US Mission for UNESCO. Still, the US remains the single largest contributor to the UN, contributing about 22% of the current UN regular budget.

The US has historically been at the forefront of many of the UN efforts regarding international peace and security. However, under President Trump, the US has implemented isolationist policies, embraced nationalism, and threatened to reduce financial support for the UN, arguing that it has become a burden to the US as its members fail to make their membership dues. Consequently, the Trump administration is sending a message to the world that the US is committed to the “America First” policy, retreating from multilateral international efforts, such as the Paris Agreement. On January 23, President Trump announced the withdrawal of US funds for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) through an executive order, cutting support for the agency that focuses on “family planning as well as maternal and child health in more than 150 countries,” as stated in Reuters. The US also reinstated the Mexico City Policy, better known as the “Global Gag Rule,” stating that the UNFPA “supports, or participates in the management of, a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.” The decision was widely criticized as it is considered an attack on women’s health and protection of women’s rights. Furthermore, the UNFPA will now be short of $32.5 million in US funds, according to BBC News.

Nonetheless, contrary to his previous remarks, President Trump changed his tone towards the organization at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly on September 18, stating that “I am confident that if we work together and champion truly bold reforms, the United Nations will emerge as a stronger, more effective, more just and greater force for peace and harmony in the world.”

Multilateral diplomacy is more important today than ever; the UN is a vital, indispensable international platform, particularly because the Trump administration seeks to implement isolationist policies. President Trump is determined to bring the nation’s domestic agenda to the international system whether it be women’s reproductive rights, treatment of refugees, education, and celebrating cultural diversity.

Luisa Tembo