The Bulgarian outgoing head of Unesco said on October 12 that she wished to “express profound regret” at the decision by the United States to withdraw from the organisation.
“This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism,” Bokova said, after the US State Department announced that the country would pull out of Unesco with effect from December 31 2017.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at Unesco, the need for fundamental reform in the organization and continuing anti-Israel bias at Unesco”.
Nauert said that the US had informed Bokova that it wanted to remain engaged with Unesco as a non-member observer state “to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise on some of the most important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific education and collaboration”.
The US previously withdrew from Unesco, in 1984 under the Reagan administration, citing at the time corruption and maladministration and a bias against the West and in favour of the Soviets. The US returned in 2003 while George W Bush was president, stating that Unesco had made progress cleaning up its act regarding bias against the State of Israel and the West.
The Trump administration has telegraphed previously a likely pullout from the organisation.
Bokova has headed Unesco since 2009 and is in a second term, with the organisation struggling to agree on a successor as director-general.
In 2014, under pressure from Arab states, Bokova “indefinitely postponed” an exhibition by the Simon Wiesenthal centre “The People, The Book, The Land: The 3,500-year relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.”
There was considerable controversy in October 2016 over a resolution by Unesco condemning “aggressions” by Israeli police and military and effectively denying the Jewish heritage in Jerusalem. Both Bokova and the UN Secretary General of the time condemned the resolution. In response to the resolution, Israel froze all ties with Unesco.
In 2011, at the time of the Obama administration, the US had frozen its budget contribution to Unesco in protest at the organisation granting full membership to the Palestinians.
In her lengthy statement on October 12, Bokova said: “In 2011, when payment of membership contributions was suspended at the 36th session of the Unesco General Conference, I said I was convinced Unesco had never mattered as much for the United States, or the United States for Unesco.”
“This is all the more true today, when the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security, to counter racism and antisemitism, to fight ignorance and discrimination,” said Bokova, who went on to detail co-operation between Unesco and the US.
According to a report by the European Jewish Press, the 58 members of the executive board of the Paris-based organization are meeting this week to elect the new Unesco Director-General. Three candidates are considered leading the race: Dr Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kuwari, a former Culture Minister of Qatar, who got 19 out of 59 votes Monday night, followed by France’s nominee Audrey Azoulay (13) and Egyptian Moushira Khattab (11).
“According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), the candidate of Qatar, Al-Kawari, has a record of anti-Semitism since several years,” the EJP said.
The executive board members have until October 13 to select Bokova’s successor. They need an overall majority.
A few hours after the US State Department announcement, Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Emmaneul Nahshon said in a Twitter message that the Israeli prime minister had instructed the foreign ministry to prepare for leaving Unesco along with the US. “Unesco, as it is now, is biased and distorts history,” he said.