The United States has announced its intention to rejoin the United Nations‘ cultural and scientific agency UNESCO, after a prolonged dispute that began when the organization admitted Palestine as a member. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay conveyed the US decision to ambassadors of member states during a special meeting on Monday. As part of its return, the US plans to settle over $600 million in outstanding dues accumulated over the past decade.
The US government’s decision to rejoin UNESCO is driven by concerns that China has been assuming a greater role in shaping the organization’s policies, particularly in areas such as artificial intelligence and global technology education. Richard Verma, the US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, submitted a formal letter to Azoulay last week, formalizing the plan. The proposal to rejoin UNESCO in 2023 will be presented to the General Conference of UNESCO Member States for final approval.
China’s ambassador to UNESCO, Yang Jin, stated that Beijing would not oppose the US request to rejoin, emphasizing the need for all member states to collaborate in fulfilling UNESCO’s missions. This decision represents a significant financial boost for UNESCO, renowned for its World Heritage program, as well as its initiatives combating climate change and promoting girls’ education.
The US and Israel ceased funding UNESCO in 2011 when it included Palestine as a member state, subsequently losing their voting rights in 2013. In 2017, the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the agency entirely, citing concerns of anti-Israel bias and mismanagement.
Efforts have been made to facilitate the US’s return. Verma’s letter acknowledged UNESCO’s efforts in management reform and reducing politicized debates, particularly regarding Middle East matters. Since her election in 2017, Director-General Azoulay has worked diligently to address the issues that led to the US’s departure, implementing budget reforms and fostering consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli diplomats on sensitive UNESCO resolutions.
Azoulay stated that the US decision to rejoin is the culmination of five years of work, which included defusing tensions, particularly in the Middle East, improving responses to contemporary challenges, launching major initiatives on the ground, and modernizing the organization’s functioning.
According to Verma’s letter cited by the Associated Press, the US government intends to pay its 2023 dues and provide $10 million in additional contributions this year. These funds will be allocated to Holocaust education, cultural heritage preservation in Ukraine, journalist safety, and science and technology education in Africa. The Biden administration has also requested $150 million for the 2024 budget to cover UNESCO dues and arrears, with similar requests anticipated in the following years until the full $619 million debt is settled.
The US’s financial contribution is significant for UNESCO, as it constituted 22 percent of the agency’s overall funding prior to its departure. UNESCO operates with an annual budget of $534 million.