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China Concerns Prompt US Move to Rejoin Unesco

The UN’s cultural and scientific agency, Unesco, has announced that the US plans to rejoin – and pay more than $600m (£477m) in back dues – after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organisation’s move to include Palestine as a member.

US officials say the decision to return was motivated by concern that China is filling the gap left by Washington in Unesco policymaking, notably in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world.

The US deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Richard Verma, submitted a letter last week to the Unesco director general, Audrey Azoulay, formalising the plan to rejoin.

There was applause in the Unesco auditorium as Azoulay announced the plan to ambassadors at a special meeting on Monday, and many delegates stood up to welcome the news – and the new influx of money. The return of the US, once the agency’s biggest funder, is expected to face a vote by its 193 member states next month, according to a Unesco diplomat.

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 Unesco 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, citing anti-Israel bias and management problems.

In his letter last week, Verma noted efforts by Unesco toward management reform, and “decreasing politicised debate, especially on Middle East issues”. A delegation from Washington came to Paris last week to hand-deliver the letter, obtained by the Associated Press news agency.

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 return “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 AP.

She met Democrats and Republicans in Washington to explain those efforts, according to a Unesco diplomat. Thanks to those bipartisan negotiations, Unesco diplomats expressed confidence that the US decision to return is for the long term, regardless of who wins next year’s presidential election.

The diplomats were not authorised to be publicly named discussing the behind-the-scenes work that led to the decision.

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 says.

The Biden administration has requested $150m for the 2024 budget to go toward 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 large part of Unesco’s $534m annual operating budget. Before leaving, the US contributed 22% of the agency’s overall funding.

John Bass, theundersecretary of state for management, said in March that theUS’s absence from Unesco had strengthened China, and ’’undercuts our ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free world”.

He said Unesco was key to setting and shaping standards for technology and science teaching around the world, “so if we’re really serious about the digital-age competition with China … we can’t afford to be absent any longer”.

The US decision to withdraw plunged the agency into financial uncertainty. Unesco diplomats described belt-squeezing across agency programmes and aggressive efforts by Azoulay to boost voluntary financing from other countries to make up the shortfall.

One diplomat expressed hope that the return of the US would bring “more ambition, and more serenity” – and energise programmes to regulate artificial intelligence, educate girls in Afghanistan and chronicle victims of slavery in the Caribbean.

The diplomat said the agency would also welcome back Israel if it wanted to rejoin.

The US previously pulled out of Unesco under the Reagan administration in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. It rejoined in 2003.

Source : Theguardian