TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -The US decision to withdraw from UNESCO, the UN’s educational, scientific, and cultural agency, is a further example of the contempt the world’s superpower has for the idea of the equality of nations – the principle on which the UN was founded.
In what’s been quite a year for the US pulling out of – or threatening to pull out of – international agreements, President Donald Trump has already said the US is withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord, and it was announced on Friday that he won’t be certifying the nuclear deal with Iran.
But in regards to the walk-out from the UN’s world heritage body, we can’t put all the blame on The Big Bad Donald. His predecessors – both Republican and Democrat – have paved the way. The US may have helped establish UNESCO in 1945, but after it expanded and countries were admitted who dared to vote ‘the wrong way,’ the line changed. In much the same way, the US’ attitude towards the UN has altered too.In 1984, Ronald Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, with claims that it had a pro-Soviet bias (In other words, it wasn’t sufficiently pro-American). The organization was attacked for ‘collectivist’ trends, and for spending $750,000 on discussing Soviet disarmament proposals. Ok, they probably could have ordered cheaper sandwiches and gone for the house wine. But considering that UNESCO’s mission is “to contribute to the building of peace” – they surely had their hearts in the right place.
George W. Bush brought Uncle Sam back in 2002, but in 2011, the Obama administration again threw the toys out of the pram and canceled the US’ budget contribution funding in reprisal for the organization admitting Palestine as a full member.
Since then, the US hasn’t paid a dime to UNESCO and now is in arrears to the tune of over $550mn. Whether UNESCO will ever get what it’s owed by Washington now seems highly unlikely. There’s probably more chance of Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid to join Tranmere Rovers.
The timing of the announcement of the American withdrawal – which will take effect from December 31, 2018 – is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it came as the world heritage body was voting on a new director-general. By pulling out, the US (and Israel, which announced it was leaving shortly after the US made public its decision), will hope to exert pressure on UNESCO to change direction.Don’t forget the US, prior to 2011, paid around 22% of the organization’s budget. It was reported that Israel was concerned at the prospect of the former Qatari culture minister, Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, getting the top job. Ironically, in the end the position went to Audrey Azoulay, a French Jewess, who has relatives living in Israel.
The current state of Middle Eastern politics – particularly in relation to Syria – is another major factor behind this week’s events. Israel is frustrated by the fact that President Bashar Assad – ally of Hezbollah and Iran – is not only still in power in Damascus but is winning the war.
Earlier this month, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged the US to “be more active in the Syrian arena.” And we all know what that means.Trump can’t deliver in Syria what Israel wants, i.e. regime change, because the Syrians and their allies are too strong, but he can please Tel Aviv and the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US in other areas. Namely, in disavowing the Iranian nuclear deal – and leaving UNESCO.
The US cited what it called UNESCO’s “continuing anti-Israel” bias as the reason for leaving. But in fact, the UN body has only been reflecting the views on Israel/Palestine of the majority of its members. The vote to admit Palestine as a member in October 2011 was hardly close, with 107 states in favor and only 14 against. Only an anti-democrat would say that the views of the 14 should prevail – but that was indeed the US line.You don’t need to go to Specsavers or have a giant magnifying glass to see the double standard. The US has passed laws preventing the country funding any body which recognizes Palestine – but itself has pushed for countries to recognize micro-statelets in the Balkans like Kosovo, whose ‘independence’ was achieved largely on account of a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. And amid the criticism of UNESCO by the US and Israel for designating Hebron old city a Palestinian world heritage site and for UNESCO’s executive board passing a vote in June which referred to Jerusalem as being ‘occupied,’ there has been less attention given to the valuable work UNESCO does in educating people about the Holocaust (and other genocides), and in the protection of the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau as a World Heritage site.
The notion that UNESCO is pursuing an anti-Israel agenda and is even anti-Semitic has been challenged in Israel itself.
Writing in Haaretz, archaeologist Yonatan Mizrahi declared: “We can assert that UNESCO is not an anti-Semitic organization and its decision to declare Hebron an endangered World Heritage Site is not anti-Semitic and does not ignore the Jewish connection to the Cave of the Patriarchs.”
It’s also worth pointing out the number of UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites there are in Israel too. No fewer than nine cultural sites have been added since 2001. Again, hardly a sign of an anti-Israel agenda, is it?American objections to UNESCO don’t really add up until you see the bigger picture. The problem with the body, like the UN in general, is that its ideals of genuine internationalism and the equality of nations is at variance with US exceptionalism. The US was compelled to work within UN structures for most of the post-war period, but after the break-up of the Soviet Union, hawks in Washington saw no real need for the US to have to support any body which didn’t do exactly what they required. The bogus doctrine of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ was invented as a means of bypassing the UN Security Council, the only body which can make war lawful – if the country is not acting in self-defense.
The Rubicon was crossed in 1999 when the US and its allies bombed Yugoslavia without UN authorization. The new imperial arrogance was voiced not by a wild-eyed Republican, but by a Democrat, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who declared in relation to Iraq in 1998: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
It was the ‘progressive’ Albright too who told Colin Powell at the time she was US Ambassador at the UN: “What's the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”Little things like international law were thrown out the window as Washington targeted strategically important, resource rich independent states that didn’t toe the line. All the time, the UN and its agencies were being undermined. Iraq was attacked in 2003 before UN weapons inspectors could finish the job which was mandated to them under UN Resolution 1441. Of course, Washington had to strike before Iraq was given a clean bill of health because then their casus belli would have disappeared.
The UN provides an arena for US politicians to make the fraudulent case for regime change wars (who can ever forget Colin Powell holding up that model vial of ‘anthrax’ in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion), but it also gives a platform for those targeted by The Empire too. And that’s why the Endless War lobby in Washington hate it.
In 2006, then-President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez memorably told the UN General Assembly: “Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the President of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world.”Only last month, Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian president, Robert Mugabe, took to the UN to mock US President Trump as “the giant gold goliath.”
“Are we having a return of Goliath to our midst, who threatens the extinction of other countries?” he asked. The Sunday Times (that’s the South African newspaper and not the Murdoch-owned UK propaganda sheet), notes that “two junior US diplomats listened expressionless.”
You can bet Comrade Bob is off Trump’s Christmas card list – but the belief that the US’ stance towards the UN would become more positive with another president is naive to say the least. Trump’s biggest critic is the uber neocon Senator John McCain, who when standing for president in 2008, called for a new ‘League of Democracies’ to ‘complement’ the UN. “It could act where the UN fails to act,” McCain explained. “It could bring concerted pressure to bear on tyrants in Burma or Zimbabwe, with or without Moscow’s and Beijing’s approval. It could unite to impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions.”In other words, if Washington couldn’t get its way through the UN, it would get its way through the ‘League of Democracies.’ And of course, it would be up to the US to decide which countries would be designated ‘democracies.’
What lies behind Washington’s withdrawal from UNESCO, and its frustration with the UN in general, is the belief that the ‘Exceptional Nation’ shouldn’t have to accept any decision which it doesn’t approve of, however democratically it’s been arrived at. Organizations must do exactly what foreign policy hawks in the US want or else they’ll simply cry foul and storm out of the room.
UNESCO officials have announced their disappointment at the US pull-out. But they need to look on the bright side. After all, they’re not being threatened with airstrikes and being accused of having weapons of mass destruction. Well, at least, not yet.