Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Trump administration’s Thursday announcement that the United States will withdraw from UNESCO will have little impact on San Antonio’s World Heritage sites, the Spanish-colonial Missions and the Alamo, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in a press statement.
“It is critically important to maintain and strengthen the World Heritage site for local heritage, but also for the fact that these are important international sites. We’re going to continue to do that according to the guiding principles of World Heritage and with the UNESCO designation,” Nirenberg said. “There’s no substantive change to what we’re doing.”
The withdrawal will go into effect in late 2018.
The Missions and the Alamo became a World Heritage site in 2015 following a multi-year collaboration among the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, the Texas General Land Office, the National Park Service, San Antonio River Authority, and the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran represents Council District 3, where four Spanish colonial missions are located. The Alamo is in Councilman Roberto Treviño’s District 1.
Withdrawing from UNESCO is “a shortsighted move that is more about politics, not about sound public policy,” Viagran said in a joint statement with the City’s World Heritage Office.
“The international bonds San Antonio has solidified as a result of the World Heritage designation are invaluable to us as a community and growing city. We must continue to work together, not isolate ourselves, to strengthen San Antonio’s status as a global city.”
The move will have little or no impact, officials said, as the Missions’ status is confirmed and San Antonio does not receive funds from UNESCO.
The U.S. State Department announced the withdrawal, citing concerns with “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” according to a statement issued by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
The move was a strong show of support for Israel, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said in a statement. “I join Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in praising President Trump’s strong show of support for Israel. America has no better ally and no truer friend in the world than Israel and today’s decision says loud and clear that the UN badly needs reform.”
In response to concern over the future of the Alamo, Bush said the United Nations would “never have any role or influence at the Alamo as long as I am its guardian.”
In an October 2016 resolution, UNESCO referred to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Al-Haram Al-Sharif/Al-Aqsa Mosque – considered a holy site in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – as a “Muslim holy site.” The resolution also referred to Israel as an “occupying power.” The resolution was renewed in July 2017.
The U.S. has appealed to UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova to maintain a “permanent observer” status 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,” Nauert’s statement said.
While the U.S. has been part of the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization since its founding in 1945, this is not the first time the U.S. has withdrawn its membership.
In December 1984, the U.S. pulled out of the international agency over concern of “a growing disparity between U.S. foreign policy and UNESCO goals,” according to the U.S. State Department. A since-released correspondence from November 1984 between former Assistant Secretary of State Gregory J. Newell and the CIA cites concerns over pro-Soviet agendas at work within UNESCO. The Regan administration also cited concerns about corruption.
The U.S. rejoined UNESCO in 2002, during the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. lost its voting privileges with UNESCO after two years of unpaid dues, following a 2011 decision by the Obama administration to cease payment in response to Palestine’s admission to the agency as a full member.
The U.S. currently owes UNESCO more than $542 million in unpaid dues. Annual U.S. dues of around $80 million accounted for about 22% of the UNESCO’s budget.
“Despite the withholding of funding, since 2011, we have deepened the partnership between the United States and UNESCO, which has never been so meaningful,” Bokova said in a statement issued after the Trump administration announced the withdrawal. “The partnership between UNESCO and the United States has been deep, because it has drawn on shared values.”
The statement lists the many UNESCO World Heritage sites and initiatives in the U.S. However, “this is not just about World Heritage,” Bokova’s statement said. “At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.”
“This is a loss for multilateralism,” the statement read.
San Antonio’s Alamo and Spanish-colonial Missions are the first in Texas and one of only 1,073 cultural treasures worldwide to receive the prestigious UNESCO designation. The Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and since 2015, San Antonio’s Alamo and Spanish-colonial Missions, are the only urban World Heritage sites in the continental United States.
“We are happy that status is not expected to change,” Nirenberg said. “The Missions are a world-class heritage site and their importance locally and internationally is unquestioned.”