The United States has made good its threat to withdraw its membership of the UN’s world heritage body Unesco , citing “continuing anti-Israel bias” and “mounting arrears”.
A US state department statement announcing the withdrawal however added that the US would seek to “remain engaged … as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives and expertise.”
Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, said she had received formal notification of withdrawal from the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
In 2011 the US cancelled its budget contribution to Unesco in protest against the admission of Palestine as a full member.
Bokova, whose term in office is coming to an end, expressed her “profound regret” over the US decision. “This is not just about World Heritage,” she said, describing the withdrawal as “a loss to both the organisation and the US”.
Unesco members are voting on a replacement for the director general.
After two days of a secret ballot that could run until Friday, Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari is leading France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian Moushira Khattab.
The emergence of Kawari has been seen by Israel and the US as a failure of their efforts to secure the post for a figure they regard as more friendly.
Earlier this week Israel’s Unesco ambassador described the trajectory of voting in the secret ballots as “bad news for the organisation and unfortunately also for Israel”.
The US previously withdrew from Unesco under Ronald Reagan, only to rejoin under George W Bush.
Unesco has 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.
In October Israel suspended its cooperation with Unesco after the agency a resolution that Israel said denied the Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem.