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Critics Say U.S. Withdrawal From UNESCO Allows Different Agendas To Surface


At the end of World War II, the United States helped found UNESCO, that's the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization. It was supposed to promote the flow of ideas to prevent future conflicts. But then, UNESCO granted full membership to the Palestinians, and the U.S. stopped funding it. The Trump administration says it will pull out at the end of this year.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has this story from Paris, where UNESCO is based.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Richard the Lionheart left on a crusade from this Romanesque church in the Burgundy village of Vezelay. Today, the site is on UNESCO's World Heritage list of places of exceptional cultural value to humanity. France has 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites that draw tourists from across the globe. Brazilian Raquel Chaplot is one of them.

RAQUEL CHAPLOT: (Through interpreter) We came to Vezelay because of its UNESCO seal. You know you'll never be disappointed when you visit a UNESCO Heritage site, and France really gives them prominence.

BEARDSLEY: But UNESCO does more than promote culture and tourism. It also runs scientific and educational programs and initiatives the world over.

PETER YEO: Important initiatives that promote human rights, that promote journalist freedoms, that promote Holocaust education.

BEARDSLEY: That's Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, an organization that works to strengthen ties between the U.S. and the U.N. Yeo says America's disengagement from UNESCO over the last decade is changing the organization.

YEO: The U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO, as well as the decision to defund UNESCO in 2011, absolutely created a vacuum that, at times, has been filled by, you know, members from the Gulf States and other member states that don't necessarily share our commitment to human rights.

BEARDSLEY: A law that forced President Obama to cut off funding when UNESCO accepted Palestine as a member state in 2011 is still in force.

Brett Schaefer is a U.N. specialist at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. He says UNESCO is a perfectly fine organization, but when it voted to recognize the Palestinians as full members, it undermined an important U.S. policy goal.

BRETT SCHAEFER: Principally, our interest in trying to establish a lasting peace in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have been pursuing an effort to try and get international recognition absent a negotiated peace with Israel.

BEARDSLEY: The Trump administration cited anti-Israel bias as one of its reasons for leaving UNESCO, but observers say things have changed at the organization in the last year under its new director, former French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay, who happens to be Jewish.


AUDREY AZOULAY: It is vital today to bring back peace.

BEARDSLEY: That's Azoulay speaking at a recent UNESCO conference. Israeli and Palestinian delegations jointly supported more than a dozen initiatives at UNESCO this year. And the organization's leaders had hoped the U.S. and Israel, which decided to leave UNESCO alongside the U.S., would reconsider.

STEPHEN JORDAN: There's no other organization quite like UNESCO that brings together the world's education, science and cultural networks.

BEARDSLEY: That Stephen Jordan, CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Development. Jordan says if the U.S. wants to be competitive in the world, it must remain engaged with the international community.

JORDAN: Why should we reinvent the wheel when we have the perfectly good tools to exchange information and to learn more and to benchmark other folks?

BEARDSLEY: The United States owes UNESCO $550 million in unpaid dues. The Heritage Foundation's Schaefer says it's better to just stop accumulating that debt. He says the U.S. can always return to UNESCO in the future when the time is right. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER TRIO'S "THE STAR OF A STORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.