The United States has announced it will withdraw from the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), accusing the body of “anti-Israel bias”.
Heather Nauert, US state department spokesperson, said on Thursday the US would establish an “observer mission” to replace its representation at the Paris-based agency.
In a statement announcing its withdrawal, Israel called the US administration’s decision “courageous and moral”, and accused UNESCO of becoming a “theatre of the absurd” after a series of resolutions condemning it.
Irina Bokova, the outgoing head of UNESCO, called the US withdrawal a “loss to multilateralism”, saying she is convinced that “UNESCO has never been so important for the US, or the US for UNESCO”.
At a time when “conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack,” she said.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said through a spokesman that he “regrets this development deeply”.
The decision demonstrates the US administration’s “complete and total bias” towards Israel, says Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party comprising secular intellectuals.
“This behaviour is counterproductive and shameful,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.
“Sooner or later they will see Palestine in every UN agency. Will the US respond to that by withdrawing from the WHO or the World Intellectual Property Organization? They will be hurting only themselves.”
The US was angered in 2011 when UNESCO members granted Palestine full membership of the body, despite opposition from its ally Israel.
That year the US stopped paying into the 195-member organisation but did not officially withdraw.
The US opposes any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinians as a state, believing that this must await a negotiated Middle East peace deal.
‘Not taken lightly’
UNESCO is best known for its work to preserve heritage, including maintaining a list of World Heritage sites, and programmes to promote education in developing countries.
“UNESCO is about promoting our ideals and values through culture, education and science,” Francois Delattre, France’s UN ambassador, said in New York, adding that “we need an America that stays committed to world affairs.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said it regrets the decision, adding that the move would disrupt a number of important projects planned by UNESCO.
“We share the concern by many countries that the activity of UNESCO has been too politicised lately,” the ministry said in a statement.
Israel’s UN ambassador said the US decision showed there was a “price to pay for discrimination against Israel”.
In a statement, Danny Danon said the decision marked “a new era” at the UN.
Barghouti, of the Palestinian National Initiative, said it is “as if Israel is dictating US policy not only in the Middle East but also in international organisations.
“That’s going to have a very harmful effect on the idea the US being a mediator between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
The US has walked out of UNESCO once before under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who took the decision in 1984 over alleged financial mismanagement and claims of anti-US bias in some of its policies.
George Bush announced a US return in 2002, but relations soured again in 2011 when Barack Obama pulled the plug on funding to the body after its members voted to admit Palestine as a full member.