On Thursday, the White House announced the U.S. would formally withdraw from UNESCO because of its perceived anti-Israel bias and the need for reform.
Founded in the wake of WWII, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is best known for its list of World Heritage sites—including Stonehenge, the Grand Canyon, and the Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But its mandate includes access to quality education, a diverse cultural environment, freedom of expression, and basic human dignity for citizens of all member nations.
The U.S. stopped contributing funds for UNESCO in 2011, after Palestine was added as a member state. But the State Department has maintained an office and unofficial ties to the group.
“We were in arrears to the tune of $550 million or so,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “And so the question is, do we want to pay that money? With this anti-Israel bias that’s long documented on the part of UNESCO, that needs to come to an end.” (It’s worth noting the U.S. will still owe those back payments after withdrawing.)
Nauert also said the administration “would like to see overall U.N. reform.”
UNESCO programs improve educational opportunities for girls, and campaign for LGBT rights and reproductive freedoms: Last year a UNESCO report called for children to receive “non-judgmental and accurate information on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression… through information campaigns and partnerships with civil society and the wider school community.”
And UNESCO’s Global Alliance For LGBT Education (GALE) works to address discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity, foster collaborations between LGBT and mainstream institutions, and support volunteer organizations.
GALE has had a presence at both the Outgames and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) conference. Most recently the alliance called on member nations to incorporate more comprehensive sex education.
The U.S. has withdrawn from UNESCO before: In 1984, President Reagan complained the group was mismanaged, corrupt and prone to promoting the interests of the Soviet Union. (We returned in 2002 under President George W. Bush.)
After President Obama pulled U.S. funding—which accounted for more than 20% of UNESCO’s operating budget—the organization was forced to cut programs and institute a hiring freeze. This week’s announcement is more about optics than concrete changes, but it points to the Trump administration’s isolationist bent and, in particular, its distaste for the United Nations. (He withdrew U.S. support from the U.N. Population Fund in April, erroneously claiming it backed China’s forced abortion policy.)
Following the announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Israel would also withdraw from UNESCO.