RSTV- The Big Picture : US Exits UNESCO: Can UN Bodies Survive US Apathy?

  • IASbaba
  • November 11, 2017
  • 1
The Big Picture- RSTV
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US Exits UNESCO: Can UN Bodies Survive US Apathy?


TOPIC: General Studies 2

  • Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora.
  • Important International institutions, agencies and fora, their structure, mandate.

In news: US announced withdrawal from UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation (UNESCO) accusing the body of anti-Israel bias. The US would establish an observer mission to replace its representation. That will allow the United States to engage in debates and activities, though it will lose its right to vote on issues.

Three views

  1. Is UNESCO or entire UN system is becoming irrelevant?
    • UNESCO programmes are very few. There is criticism of UNESCO for bloated bureaucracy and total waste of money. Trump has no use for UNESCO. It is not first time it has withdrawn. Reagan in 1984 also withdrew. Somehow the organisation has become very politicised. Instead of uniting people, joining people, it has become an arena for political grandstanding and political formulations. Hence, it is losing its purpose.
  2. Does it reflect trump’s America first policy and staying away from multilateralism?
    • The withdrawal marks another decision by the Trump administration to distance itself from the international community.
    • US is one of the largest funders of these all agencies. But in last few years, lot of core funding for UNESCO has gone down. Lot of important programme has not come in.
    • In 2011, UNESCO recognised Palestine as a member state. Soon after that, there is US congressional resolution that if any UN body accepts Palestine as member, no funding can go from US. So funding has not been there since six years. Their voting rights have been suspended. So whether they remain member or observer makes no effect. It also shows that they have no real principle to commitment towards UNESCO.
  3. What led to this situation?
    • In early 2017, UNESCO designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, a Palestinian World Heritage site, which the Israelis duly objected to.
    • The present crisis represents the crisis across the world now in fragmented identities. Whose history does the mosque belong to? US withdrawal in support of Israel is support to the existing crisis. This shows that grip of Israel on American foreign policy is strong.

China gains

Japan also has a problem with UNESCO because china has managed to get Nanjing massacre records included as historical records of the world and japan since 2016 has suspended its own contribution of 35 million dollars. When top funders move out, then they are seeding space to china. It may be a useless and ineffective organisation but it is a world organisation and has soft power. So if America withdraws from Asia or TPP or trade and UNESCO, then only china will occupy this space unless Europe steps in.

There should be even in terms of League of Nations while writing records, a kind of balancing instead of some major countries dominating the UN structure. Unfortunately, because of idea of permanent Security Council members having veto rights, India has previously also argued that there should be say for all the countries including smaller countries in UN.

UN is byproduct of WWII and has gone through cold war and later years. Its not changed through this and is becoming obsolete to the changing times. If UN doesn’t seem to be reforming, UNESCO may also see same fate as UNICEF or WHO. Number of observers have said over the decade that it is time to rejig to strengthen the UN system otherwise more issues will arise and more people will echo Israel and US and then it will be difficult to reform the system.

UNESCO and its role


UNESCO is responsible for coordinating international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. It strengthens the ties between nations and societies, and mobilizes the wider public so that each child and citizen:

  • has access to quality education; a basic human right and an indispensable prerequisite for sustainable development;
  • may grow and live in a cultural environment rich in diversity and dialogue, where heritage serves as a bridge between generations and peoples;
  • can fully benefit from scientific advances;
  • can enjoy full freedom of expression; the basis of democracy, development and human dignity.

UNESCO has to try to make it relevant to the members and rejig. It is an educational and scientific and cultural organisation and members should try to be away from political agendas. The organisation should adhere to its charter and main purpose. The political issues should be settled in UN GA, UNSC etc. UNESCO- runs wide range of pogrammes

  • Helps maintain major cultural sites around the globe, Best known for the World Heritage program
  • Trains Afghan police officers how to read and write
  • Only U.N. agency that has a program to teach the history of the Holocaust.
  • UNESCO has responsibility to have open dialogue and have culture of peace through text books, conferences, seminars.

Suggestive way forward

There is a problem in discourse as Arab nations are badly fractured. There is no unity even fighting ISIS. There are different positions by number of countries. There is an economic factor and the situation is not as there was in 1960s and 1970s. In such situation they try to maintain whatever influence they have in UN bodies and make sure that UN bodies don’t collapse. Then the problem is of funding. Obviously, US by withdrawing is giving a message that they are paying for things on which they don’t have control and therefore if these organisations have to work, they should be listened to. If the UN organisations don’t change themselves, they are going to be irrelevant. This time is such that culture is extremely fragmented. This organisation can bring in convergence of ideas, people, science, culture together. The education curriculum in some countries is so poisonous to sustain. It has to be reformed.

Who will decide the parameters of writing history? If the countries in global south don’t like the way textbooks are written, they will not associate with it in the future. The idea should be to head towards liberalism but at a pace which people can accept. When the experts of each country are involved in the process, the biasness is expected to be less.

Connecting the dots:

  • UN is losing its relevance as it is not able to cope up with post cold war years’ development. Do you agree? Substantiate with suitable examples.

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