On October 12, the Trump administration announced that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for the designation of World Heritage Sites. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has issued a public statement that decries this decision.
In the statement, AIA president Thomas Vonier advocated for the World Heritage Sites program, which is important to architects because it “seeks to identify and preserve buildings and places of exceptional importance to humankind.”
He also noted that UNESCO had recently partnered with the International Union of Architects on a new project to select an annual World Capital of Architecture. This project, he argued, makes UNESCO’s mission to support architectural heritage all the more critical. “The AIA urges the Administration to lends its support to this initiative,” he concluded.
UNESCO–short for the United National Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization–protects over 1,000 sites of architectural, natural, and cultural importance. Once selected, World Heritage Sites are demarcated and protected as landmarks. The United States is home to 23 of these sites, including the Statue of Liberty, the San Antonio Missions, Independence Hall, and Yellowstone National Park.
The Trump Administration chose to withdraw from the global initiative citing “the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias” as its reasoning. The bias mentioned is likely in reference to UNESCO’s recognition of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage Site earlier this summer. With Hebron’s addition, Palestine now hosts three World Heritage Sites (all of which are considered endangered by UNESCO), as compared to the nine in Israel (none of which are).
The United States has not been able to vote in UNESCO procedures since 2013, when the Obama Administration cut funding for the organization. This cut was in direct reaction to UNESCO’s recognition of the first World Heritage Sites in Palestine.
The U.S. government hasn’t entirely separated themselves from the organization. Instead, they plan to adopt the role of a “non-member observer state” in continued engagement with UNESCO. In this capacity, they will remain involved only to offer American perspectives on the organization’s undertakings. The withdrawal takes full effect on December 31, 2018.