U.S. Will Rejoin UNESCO in July, Agency Says - The World News

U.S. Will Rejoin UNESCO in July, Agency Says

The United States will rejoin UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, in July, the agency announced on Monday, after years of turbulent relations that culminated in 2017 with a full withdrawal by the U.S. government. The move, which comes over a decade after the United States had cut off key funding to the agency, will give its budget a much-needed boost.

“This is a strong act of confidence, in UNESCO and in multilateralism,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, said in a statement after announcing the U.S. decision to a meeting of representatives of the agency’s 193 members at its headquarters in Paris.

UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a statement that the Department of State had sent a letter to Ms. Azoulay that “welcomed the way in which UNESCO had addressed in recent years emerging challenges, modernized its management and reduced political tensions.”

The move to rejoin was made possible by a bill passed by Congress in December that authorized financial contributions to UNESCO, the statement said, noting that the United States had put forward a “concrete financing plan” that must be approved by the UNESCO. The statement did not provide any details about that plan.

UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage sites, more than 1,150 of them since 1972, including ones like Yosemite National Park in California, Angkor in Cambodia and the Stone Town of Zanzibar. It also keeps an “intangible cultural heritage” list of humanity’s most worthy creations — like the French baguette.

The organization is also known for its educational programs, and it works extensively on the promotion of sex education, literacy, clean water and equality for women. It also helps to set standards on a range of issues, including ocean protection and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

But it had suffered over the past decade from a lack of funding as well as accusations of political bias, especially on matters related to Israel and the Palestinians. UNESCO member states have used the organization to rehash historical disputes, fight over competing claims to cultural heritage and challenge the international legitimacy of their rivals.

U.S. officials have recently argued that leaving an empty chair at UNESCO had created a vacuum that competing powers, most notably China, were filling.

John Bass, the under secretary of state for management, said in March that the U.S. absence from UNESCO had strengthened China, and “undercuts our ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free world.”

Mr. Bass said that UNESCO played a crucial role in shaping global technology and science. “So if we’re really serious about the digital-age competition with China,” he said, “we can’t afford to be absent any longer.”

In 2011, the United States stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a full member. The move, made because of U.S. legislation mandating a complete cutoff of American financing to any United Nations agency that accepts Palestine as a full member, deprived the agency of nearly a fifth of its budget, forcing it to slash programs.

Then, in 2017, the Trump administration cited anti-Israel bias and mounting arrears when it took a step further and announced that it was withdrawing from UNESCO completely, although the United States remained a nonmember observer.

The Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment and Palestinian officials did not immediately respond.

The American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israel U.S.-based Jewish advocacy group, welcomed the decision.

“Continued U.S. absence from UNESCO — an agency that supports educational efforts to fight antisemitism and preserve Holocaust memory, and which under current leadership has halted the adoption of one-sided resolutions prejudicial to Israel — did not serve American national interests and values, or those of our allies,” the group said in a statement.

Seth J. Frantzman, a commentator for the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli English-language newspaper, said on social media that the move was “natural and positive.” He added: “Leaving UNESCO didn’t help the U.S. or Israel. In fact in Israel’s case it was an incredibly shortsighted decision driven by spite rather than constructive dialogue.”

The United States had also withdrawn from the agency in 1984, during the Cold War, because the Reagan administration deemed it too susceptible to Moscow’s influence and overly critical of Israel. President George W. Bush pledged in 2002 to rejoin the organization partly to show his willingness for international cooperation in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

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