US set to join Unesco after leaving under Trump presidency

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Photography: Christophe Ena/AP

The United States is set to join Unesco this month after a four-year absence from the global cultural and educational body that the country abandoned during Donald Trump’s presidency due to what his administration called “bias anti-Israeli”.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s meeting with the United States came after a special two-day session held at the body’s headquarters in Paris.

Of the 193 Member States of Unesco, 142 took part in Friday’s vote. Ten states voted against the return of the United States, including Russia, Belarus, Iran, North Korea and Nicaragua. China, which had become the organization’s main backer in the absence of the United States, also voted against readmission.

Related: China fears that the United States will decide to join UNESCO

US efforts to join Unesco have intensified since last year, when Joe Biden’s White House said in a $1.7 billion spending bill that the administration would seek to join the organization. in order to “counter Chinese influence”.

“I am encouraged and grateful that the members of Unesco have accepted the American proposal which will allow us to continue the process of joining the organization”, declared the American Secretary of State Antony Blinken. said in a statement.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield describe the decision as “very good news”.

“If we are not engaged in international institutions, we are leaving a void and losing an opportunity to advance American values ​​and interests on the world stage,” she added.

Meanwhile, UN director for the International Crisis Group, Richard Gowan, told CBS News on Tuesday: “The Biden administration has always made it clear that it is wary of China’s growing influence in the UN.

“Biden’s team thinks Trump has ceded a lot of ground to China with his anti-UN stance. The decision to join Unesco is just the latest example of the United States deciding it can do more to counter China by actively engaging in UN institutions than by sitting on the sidelines.

As a condition of readmission, the United States will refund approximately $619 million in unpaid dues, cover 22% of Unesco’s annual budget, and contribute to programs supporting access to education initiatives in Africa, memory of the ‘Holocaust and the Safety of Journalists.

Beyond the intensification of actions in favor of Africa, Unesco indicated that it would be able to increase its efforts in favor of gender equality, a strategic priority.

“With this return, Unesco will be in an even stronger position to carry out its mandate,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director General of Unesco.

“Unesco’s mandate – education, science, culture, freedom of information – is absolutely central to meeting the challenges of the 21st century. It is this centrality, as well as the easing of political tensions within the organization and the initiatives launched in recent years, which have led the United States to initiate this return.

Last month, the United States acknowledged in a letter to Unesco that it noted the organization’s “efforts to implement key management and administrative reforms, as well as its focus on reducing politicized debates, especially on Middle Eastern issues”.

The organization had voted in 2011 to admit Palestine, which is not officially recognized by the United States or Israel as a UN member state. Barack Obama’s White House cut contributions to Unesco, forcing the United States to owe the organization millions in arrears.

Five years later, in 2016, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee adopted a decision finding that Israeli actions related to archaeology, tourism and freedom of movement in the Old City of Jerusalem contravened laws and cultural heritage practices.

US and Israeli officials have complained that failure to include full Jewish history in any decision about Jerusalem amounts to denial of Jewish history.

In 2017, a year into the Trump presidency, the United States cited “increasing backlogs at Unesco, the need for fundamental reform of the organization, and the persistence of anti-Israel bias in Unesco” as reasons for the decision.

UNESCO’s decision to readmit the United States, which has 24 properties on the World Heritage List, is the second time it has left and rejoined since the organization was established in 1945.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan’s administration withdrew the United States for what it saw as anti-Western bias. Unesco, she complained, “has extravagantly politicized virtually every subject it deals with.”

“He showed hostility to a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and he showed unbridled fiscal expansion,” White House Reagan added.

But beneath this expressed justification was frustration that Unesco, with its growing membership, was no longer acting in accordance with US foreign policy objectives.

“Countries that have the votes don’t foot the bill, and those that foot the bill don’t have the votes,” US Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick said at the time.

But in 2002, the George W Bush administration brokered readmission as part of an effort to foster international goodwill to counter deep-seated apprehensions about the United States’ “war on terror” in the Middle East. .

Reuters contributed reporting.

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