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  • Rory O'Keeffe

UNESCO - the US' attack on the UN

Israel and the US have announced that they will leave UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural protection body, with the latter citing ‘anti-Israeli bias’.

UNESCO has been extremely critical of Israel’s policy in the lands it has seized beyond the boundaries agreed on the state’s formation in 1948, and earlier this year declared Hebron a ‘Palestinian World Heritage Site’.

The latter declaration upset Israel both because (as it pointed out) Hebron also has a long Jewish history (it is, for example, the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, an important Jewish site) and also (as it did not point out in as many words) because it was tacit recognition of ‘Palestine’ as a state in the eyes of the UN; an absolute red line for Israel (as it means Israel would have to be answerable to crimes against international law committed against another sovereign state – Palestine is a full member of UNESCO, though not of the UN where it has ‘observer’ status).

However, there is, from the US perspective, more to the declaration than the state has indicated.

First, Donald Trump’s claim that he will put ‘America first’ does not leave much space for international cooperation on culture, multilateral operations, and education for people outside of the US – all foci of UNESCO.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the US has since the second Gulf War was specifically vetoed by the UN, been looking for ways to reduce the UN in reality and in the eyes of actors across the world.

It cannot very well simply walk out of the UN – such a measure would be too clearly designed to destabilise, would cast the global political system into chaos and would be roundly and fiercely criticised; the US would in effect become a global pariah, albeit one whose wealth and control over the international oil market would cushion the impact of this somewhat.

But what it has already done – consistently voting against aid measures suggested by the UN; privately briefing journalists against the international organisation for a variety of reasons, ironically including both that it has too much power (it ‘orders’ sovereign states around) and too little power (it is just an ineffectual ‘talking shop’ which never gets anything done) and never offering ‘solutions’ in private or public, to these problems; refusing to contribute to humanitarian responses as part of the UN, even in situations where its own government aid body, USAid, is operating – has been designed to weaken the UN and reduce its ability to act.

This withdrawal is a part of this continuing policy. The US is pulling out of one part of the UN. It sets a precedent, and it draws questions about which other parts of the UN might be ‘unnecessary’ or ‘acting irrationally’. And it has the advantage of being ‘covered’ by the fact that the US is a close ally of Israel. It can honestly point to its close relationship with the state, and use that fact to ‘justify’ its decision to unilaterally withdraw from a part of the sole international cooperative body on Earth.

It is, in effect, the ‘perfect storm’ for the US. A genuinely destabilising action against the UN, (which the US believes acted beyond its position when refusing permission for the second invasion of Iraq) which fits Trump’s domestic focus, and is ‘excused’ by its alliance with Israel.

It is worth noting that Israel did not withdraw from UNESCO in response to any of the UN body’s measures, reports and actions of the last five years. It announced it would leave only after the US did, this evening.

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