UNESCO says US plans to rejoin body from July

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay (C) delivers a speech to announce the United States' request to return to the institution, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, on June 12, 2023. The United States plans to rejoin UNESCO from July this year, ending a lengthy dispute that saw Washington end its membership in 2018, the UN cultural agency announced on June 12. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

Paris, France - The United States plans to rejoin UNESCO from July this year, ending a lengthy dispute that saw Washington end its membership in 2018, the UN cultural agency announced on Monday.

"It is a strong act of confidence in UNESCO and in multilateralism," said its director general Audrey Azoulay when she informed representatives of the body's member states in Paris of Washington's decision to rejoin.

The United States, a founding member of UNESCO, was a major contributor to UNESCO's budget until 2011, when the body admitted Palestine as a member state.

That triggered an end to the contributions under US law.

Then president Donald Trump went further by announcing in 2017 that the United States was withdrawing from UNESCO alongside Israel, accusing the body of bias against the Jewish state.

Its pullout took effect in 2018.

Azoulay, a former French culture minister who has headed UNESCO since 2017, has made it a priority of her mandate to bring the United States back.

"UNESCO is doing well, but it will be even better when the US returns," she said Monday.

"It's not hard to imagine all the things both the US government and civil society can bring to the international community in education, culture, and science," she added.

In a letter to Azoulay seen by AFP, Richard Verma, the US deputy secretary of state for management and resources, said Washington was "grateful" to Azoulay for progress on "significant issues", including "decreasing focus on politicised debate".

- 'Join hands' -

Until the suspension of its contributions in 2011, the US paid about 22 percent of UNESCO's budget, or $75 million.

But the US Congress, then fully controlled by President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, in December paved the way for the United States to restore funding, setting aside $150 million in the budget.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March said the US absence from UNESCO was letting China write rules on artificial intelligence.

"I very much believe we should be back in UNESCO -- again, not as a gift to UNESCO, but because things that are happening at UNESCO actually matter," Blinken told a Senate committee when he presented the budget.

"They are working on rules, norms and standards for artificial intelligence. We want to be there," he said.

China's ambassador to UNESCO Yang Jin said Monday that Beijing would not oppose the United States' return, saying the body "needs every member state to join hands to fulfil its missions" and that China "is willing to work with all the member states".

Ambassadors from many other countries worldwide, from Peru to Djibouti to Poland, hailed the news, with some such as Germany saying Washington should be readmitted "as soon as possible".

"I am confident that most of the member states will work on the return of the US," Japan's ambassador to UNESCO Atsuyuki Oike said, calling American participation "indispensable".

The US had already withdrawn from UNESCO in 1984 and rejoined the Organisation after an almost 20-year absence, in October 2003.

The proposed plan to rejoin in 2023 must now be submitted to the General Conference of UNESCO Member States for final approval.

Some member states want an extraordinary session to be held quickly to decide.


© Agence France-Presse

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