The United Nations’ cultural and scientific agency UNESCO has announced that the United States plans to rejoin – and pay more than $600m in back dues – after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organisation’s move to include Palestine as a member.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay informed ambassadors of the member states of the US decision in a special meeting on Monday.
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US officials say the decision to return was motivated by concerns that China is filling the gap left by the US in UNESCO policymaking, notably in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world.
US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma submitted a letter last week to Azoulay formalising the plan.
The proposed plan to rejoin in 2023 would be submitted to the General Conference of UNESCO Member States for final approval.
Beijing will not oppose the American request to re-join, China’s ambassador to the UN cultural body said on Monday.
“UNESCO needs every member state to join hands to fulfil its missions,” Yang Jin said of Washington’s request to return.
The decision is a big financial boost to UNESCO, known for its World Heritage programme as well as projects to fight climate change and teach girls to read.
The US and Israel stopped funding the agency after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, and both countries lost their voting rights in 2013.
The Trump administration decided in 2017 to withdraw from the agency altogether the following year, citing anti-Israel bias and management problems.
Efforts to bring US back
In his letter last week, Verma noted efforts by UNESCO towards management reform, and “decreasing politicised debate, especially on Middle East issues”.
Since her election in 2017, Azoulay has worked to address the reasons the US left, through budget reforms and building consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli diplomats around sensitive UNESCO resolutions.
The US decision to come back “is the result of five years of work, during which we calmed tensions, notably on the Middle East, improved our response to contemporary challenges, resumed major initiatives on the ground and modernised the functioning of the organisation,” Azoulay told The Associated Press news agency.
Under the plan, the US government would pay its 2023 dues plus $10m in bonus contributions this year earmarked for Holocaust education, preserving cultural heritage in Ukraine, journalist safety, and science and technology education in Africa, Verma’s letter said, as cited by the AP.
The Biden administration has already requested $150m for the 2024 budget to go towards UNESCO dues and arrears. The plan foresees similar requests for the ensuing years until the full debt of $619m is paid off.
That makes up a big chunk of UNESCO’s $534m annual operating budget. Before leaving, the US contributed 22 percent of the agency’s overall funding.