The Trump Administration is Leaving the UN Agency That Promotes Freedom of the Press

The Trump administration formally announced today that is is withdrawing from UNESCO, the UN’s scientific and cultural agency.

The US will downgrade its embassy there to an observer mission.

This is the rationale they gave.

It’s worth unpacking this a little. Just six years ago, the United States was a member of UNESCO’s key decision making body in good standing. The US championed the candidacy of UNESCO chief Irina Bokova and by all accounts positively engaged with the organization. Then in October 2011, Palestine sought membership to UNESCO, over US objections. Still, UNESCO member states overwhelmingly decided to admit Palestine as a member. This triggered a set of laws on the books since the 1990s which required the United States to withdraw funding from any UN agency that admits Palestine as member. The US stopped paying membership dues to fund UNESCO’s work, and two years later lost it’s vote at UNESCO for being so deep in arrears.

Now when issues of importance to the United States and its allies (like Israel) arise, the United States does not even have a vote and its influence has been sharply reduced.

This manifests itself from time to time on resolutions concerning cultural properties and heritage in Israel, including a vote last year that referred to certain holy cites in Jerusalem by their Arabic and not hebrew names, which Israel took as ignoring Jewish connections to these holy sites.  The US could not effective press its case, and the resolution passed. In this case, the decision to defund UNESCO over admitting Palestine (which was congressionally mandated, but opposed by the Obama administration) became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy of anti-Israel bias.

Still, UNESCO does some important work around the world not at all related to the Arab Israeli conflict.  UNESCO is most famous for designating World Heritage Sites, but it does a host of other work like promote better educational outcomes in poor countries, design holocaust curriculum, and produce scientific and technical reports, like this one about how best to avoid harmful alga blooms while designing water desalinization plants.

UNESCO is also the lead UN agency in protecting freedom of the press around the world. It provides technical expertise on freedom of expression and freedom of the press to help countries design policies and professional standards in service of a free media. It runs training workshops for journalists and policymakers in developing countries around things like reporting on gender based violence.   When a journalist is killed on the job, UNESCO keeps track and issued condemnatory statements.

UNESCO’s work on education, freedom of the press and cultural heritage advances the kinds of pluralistic values that the United States has historically sought to promote around the world. It also undertakes tasks that more directly serve American security interests, like the “Literacy Empowerment for Afghan Police (LEAP) Project,” which teaches Afghanistan’s overwhelmingly illiterate security forces how to read and write. UNESCO also manages the global Tsunami Early Warning system, which includes the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

The point is, UNESCO does good work around the world that advances American interests and values. Though it has not been a full member since 2014, it nonetheless is in American interests to engage as productively as possible in this organization. The Trump administration’s decision to pullout of UNESCO is yet another example of this administration’s general retreat from America’s traditional role as a global leader in these forums.