US decides to rejoin UNESCO after 5-year hiatus

US officials had expressed concern that China was filling the gap left by its absence. Beijing said it had no objection to the US joining, as it would need a vote before it’s allowed back in the cultural body

UNESCOFile photo

The US plans to rejoin the United Nations’ cultural and scientific agency UNESCO as of next month, the UN body announced on Monday, after a five-year absence over what the US had described as pro-Palestinian bias.

Director General Audrey Azoulay told UNESCO representatives in Paris the US intended to renew its membership, describing the move as a “strong act of confidence in UNESCO and in multilateralism.”

The US’s plan to join would have to undergo a vote by the organisation’s 193 members.

Why did the US quit the agency?

A founding member of UNESCO, the US started falling out with the agency in 2011, when the body admitted Palestine as a member state, prompting the ire of both the US and Israel.

Palestine is not recognised as a state by many Western countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, Germany and others — while a two-state solution is supported, the countries argue that statehood for the Palestinian territories would need to result from direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

The move first triggered an end to US contributions to the agency, which until that point, contributed by around 22 per cent to UNESCO’s budget.

A national law requires the US to cut funds to UN agencies that recognise Palestine as a full member. Israel also stopped paying its dues.

In 2017, former US president Donald Trump announced the US was completely withdrawing from the agency, alongside Israel. The US State Department accused the body of anti-Israel bias. The withdrawal came into effect the next year.

Why is the US returning to UNESCO?

US officials have owed the return to Washington’s concern that the void it left in the agency was being filled by Beijing.

In March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US absence allowed China to write the 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 added.

On Monday, China’s UNESCO ambassador Jin Yang said his country appreciated UNESCO’s efforts to restore the US membership, acknowledging the “negative impact” of the US’s absence on the agency’s work.

“Being a member of an international organization is a serious issue, and we hope that the return of the US this time means it acknowledges the mission and the goals of the organisation,” the ambassador said.

This wasn’t the US’s first exit from the UN cultural agency. In 1984, Washington withdrew under president Ronald Reagan, citing mismanagement, corruption and advancement of Soviet interests.

It rejoined much later in 2003, under the administration of George W. Bush to “emphasise a message of international cooperation” as the US launched its war on Iraq.