The United States this week issued a notification to UNESCO that it would be withdrawing from the global organization as of December 31, 2018, citing “continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO” as its reason. The US also called for a permanent observer mission to UNESCO, indicating to the organization’s Director General that it wants to stay on as a non-member observer state.

Shortly after the announcement, the reason for the withdrawal, Israel, also said that it was withdrawing from the organization, with Netanyahu calling it a “theatre of absurd.” The Israeli Prime Minister called the US move a “brave and moral” decision.

UNESCO’s outgoing Director General Irina Bokova in a statement said that the United States’ decision to withdraw was a loss for multilateralism, and that universality was critical to UNESCO’s mission.

The United States hasn’t actually been a voting member since 2013, and it stopped funding it’s share (22% or $80 million) the organization around that time. As such, its exit is not likely to cause any additional monetary pressure on the global organization.

According to Richard Gowan, a scholar of the UN at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “It’s as if a couple who had been living apart for years finally agreed to a divorce.”

No harm, no foul?

Earlier today, the UNESCO appointed former French cultural minister Audrey Azoulay as its new Director General. The new leader of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization takes her position at a tumultuous time in the history of the organization. Bickering between member states, lack of funding and other problems have been plaguing UNESCO in recent years.

Some diplomats are of the opinion that the organization has “lost the thread of its initial mission,” often being used as a forum for countries to settle historical scores with each other rather than a platform for promoting education, defending human rights and sharing scientific knowledge with the global community.

Azoulay, the organization’s 11th Director General, won the vote with a majority of 30 of 58 votes. Prior to the vote, she vowed to “restore” the organization’s efficiency and credibility by going back to its roots and focusing on its core missions.

This is a difficult time for a new Director General to take over, to say the least. Problems like Japan withholding funding, Serbia fighting to keep Kosovo out of the organization and China and India having it over Tibetan medicine as just a few examples of the inner turmoils at UNESCO.

Azoulay will need to be extremely diplomatic in dealing with representatives of member states as she attempts to navigate the vast organization back on course.

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Sources: U.S. Dept. of State | The Independent | New York Times