UNESCO withdrawal harms American national security

UNESCO withdrawal harms American national security
© Getty Images

Citing UNESCO’s “anti-Israel bias,” the Trump administration decided to withdraw the United States from the United Nations education and culture organization for the second time in history. The first time was in 1984, when President Reagan argued that UNESCO was a financially irresponsible and politically left-wing organization. It was under President George W. Bush that the United States rejoined UNESCO in 2003.

The State Department issued a statement that the “decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO.” After withdrawing funds in 2011 in protest over Palestinian membership in the organization, the United States is almost $550 million in arrears. However, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said that the immediate repayment of arrears by the United States was not an issue.

The question of Israeli-Palestine legitimacy over the West Bank and East Jerusalem came to a boil earlier this year when UNESCO designated the old city of Hebron a Palestinian world heritage site. Israel deeply criticized this decision, as it ignores centuries of Jewish history there, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs that dates back more than 2000 years. In May, UNESCO passed a resolution defining Israel as an “occupying power” in Jerusalem, criticizing Israel’s archaeological digs around the city.

In light of these decisions by UNESCO, the United States withdrew but will remain in the organization “as a nonmember observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education.”

Yet, one cannot help but wonder at how this will impact U.S. power over international affairs. The fact that the United States is withdrawing will not make the Palestinian issue disappear. This has emerged as one of the many ideological stances the United States has taken under President Trump. Actions such as the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in June and the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal point to an increasingly isolationist U.S. attitude toward international affairs.

No country can play a leading role on the world stage if it does not have standing in a world forum. We are living on an increasingly flattening globe, where no state is an island, and it is imperative to engage the international community in a substantive manner. No state can opt out of the international system of states without suffering the consequences.

Moreover, for the past three years, terrorists have specifically targeted cultural property as a means to make political statements and reach out to their targeted audiences. ISIS has systematically attacked renowned cultural sites such as Palmyra and Nimrud to make political statements and exercise dominance over our collective heritage. ISIS has sold looted antiquities from Iraq and Syria and raised millions of dollars to finance its activities from the wealth of past civilizations.

UNESCO has taken a leading role in trying to protect vulnerable sites from terrorist attacks and rebuilding them, as it was the case in Mali. In a statement to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune said, “Arts, education, science and culture are among the best ways to fight fundamentalism and extremism. They are not luxuries, but critical to creating alternatives, making space for peaceful contestation, promoting inclusion and protecting youth from radicalization.”

At a time where extremists are increasingly targeting cultural property to destroy religions, states and nations, it is imperative for world leaders to recognize that protecting cultural heritage is inseparable from protecting human lives, preserving states and fostering peace. Opting out of the global system of states is a self defeating practice that will only diminish U.S. power over the long term. More importantly, a lack of appreciation for the role of education and preservation of cultural property will only lead to more security threats to United States and its allies around the world.

Helga Turku, PhD, is an attorney based in Washington, D.C., and author of “The Destruction of Cultural Property as a Weapon of War.” She previously worked for the International Organization for Migration, San Francisco State University, and national security projects in Africa and Latin America.