In Depth

UK to quit Unesco?

Proposals for Britain to follow Israel and US in leaving the UN body

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt is urging fellow Cabinet ministers to back plans to withdraw the UK’s £11.1m funding from Unesco, according to reports.

“Mordaunt’s department ranks Unesco as its worst-performing multilateral agency,” says The Times. “She believes that its work does not meet her spending criteria for international aid.”

But some ministers “are apparently concerned at the symbolism of such a move, given it would follow a path trodden by Donald Trump last year”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard. Theresa May vetoed a similar proposal by Mordaunt’s predecessor Priti Patel in 2016.

So what is Unesco and why are some nations quitting it?

What is Unesco?

The agency was “founded in the ashes of World War Two to protect the common cultural inheritance of humanity”, says Reuters.

Officially known as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Unesco is best known for designating and protecting archaeological and heritage sites. A total of 180 organisations in the UK and Overseas Territories have formal links to Unesco, with 31 Unesco World Heritage sites in Britain.

However, the agency has also “often drawn the ire of Israel and the Trump administration for a series of decisions, including the listing of Hebron, a city in the southern part of the occupied Palestinian territories, as a Palestinian world heritage site”, The Guardian reports.

Why are the US and Israel withdrawing their membership?

In October 2017, the US and Israel announced they were planning to leave Unesco at the end of 2018. Both countries cited “continuing anti-Israel bias” from the organisation as the reason.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that “in withdrawing from Unesco, “Israel and the United States made a clear moral statement that Unesco’s anti-Semitism will no longer be tolerated”.

The US “has long used Unesco as a stage for political gestures”, says Quartz. In 1984, the Ronald Reagan administration withdrew the US from Unesco, “accusing it of being pro-Soviet, anti-Israel, and anti-free market”, the website adds. President George W. Bush later rejoined Unesco, in 2002.

Despite repeated overtures from the agency to rescind their upcoming withdrawal, the US and Israel have maintained they will leave on 31 December 2018. “I think it’s a catastrophic decision,” Daniel Rondeau, a former French envoy to the body, told Reuters. “It’s a fracture that seriously jeopardises the very nature of Unesco - its universal dimension - and the very concept of multilateralism.”

Why does Mordaunt want to leave?

Like her predecessor Patel, the prominent Brexiteer believes that Unesco’s work does not meet her spending criteria for international aid. Mordaunt’s reported proposal would be in line with her desire to cut the foreign aid budget and allow private investment in the UK’s overseas aid fund.

The reemergence of the plan to leave the agency has prompted a furious response from Labour.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry noted that a pause in Unesco funding during the Thatcher government was criticised by ex-PM Edward Heath as “the growth of a nasty, narrow-minded nationalism which believes that we can survive without the rest of the world”.

Thornberry added: “If Penny Mordaunt was truly worried about the organisation’s financial difficulties, she would stay inside it and help reform an organisation that Britain helped create.”

Will Mordaunt be vetoed?

The international development secretary’s wishes have “triggered concern among colleagues including Theresa May and Michael Gove, as well as in the Foreign Office”, says The Times.

Just last month, the British ambassador to Unesco, Matthew Lodge, said that the organisation had turned a corner, in a direct contradiction of Mordaunt’s views. Addressing the Unesco executive board, he said: “Although challenges remain, Unesco’s finances are on a sounder footing. The political disputes that have plagued this organisation for too long have been de-escalated and there is a renewed sense of optimism for the future.”

Responding to reports of Mordaunt’s alleged proposals, a Department for International Development spokesperson said: “There has been no change to our funding commitment to Unesco. The UK is working closely with Unesco and other member states to ensure it makes crucial reforms to deliver the best results and value for taxpayers’ money.”


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