The San Antonio Missions were the most recent U.S. sites to be awarded World Heritage status in 2015.
Courtesy National Park Service The San Antonio Missions were the most recent U.S. sites to be awarded World Heritage status in 2015.

The U.S. Department of State announced late on Thursday that the U.S. will withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), effective Dec. 31, 2018. According to the State Department's press release, the U.S. intends to remain a non-member observer state 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.” UNESCO is responsible for programs such as the World Heritage Committee, which designates World Heritage Sites and is an international advocate for freedom of the press.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” said State Department spokeperson Heather Nauert in the release, “and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”

When the agency voted to give Palestine full membership in 2011, the U.S. was forced to cease funding UNESCO due to a 1990s law that "prohibits U.S. funding to any U.N. organization that grants full membership to any group that does not have 'internationally recognized attributes' of statehood," according to a Reuters article. In July 2017, UNESCO awarded World Heritage status to the old town of Hebron/Al-Khalil, in Palestine.

Within hours of the announcement, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the U.S.’s decision to leave UNESCO and declared Israel’s intent to follow suit.

UNESCO director general Irina Bokova released a written response to the U.S. announcement stating, "I regret the withdrawal of the United States. This is a loss to UNESCO. This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism." (You can watch the full response below.)

This is not the first time the U.S. has opted to leave UNESCO. In 1983 the country, under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, decided to leave the organization "citing corruption and a pro-Soviet union, anti-U.S. bias," according to Time magazine. The U.S. did not rejoin until 2003.

As of press time, President Trump has not commented publicly to the announcement.