UNESCO head calls US decision to rejoin a vote of confidence in reforms

Foreign Ministry refuses to comment on White House move, reportedly meant to counter Chinese influence on cultural body that Israel accuses of bias

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Newly elected head of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay following her election on October 13, 2017, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (AFP/Thomas Samson)
Newly elected head of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay following her election on October 13, 2017, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (AFP/Thomas Samson)

The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  on Monday said the US decision to rejoin the cultural body showed faith in reforms made to the organization in recent years.

“This is a strong act of confidence, in UNESCO and in multilateralism,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a statement to representatives of the 193 member states of the world body. “Not only in the centrality of the Organization’s mandate – culture, education, science, information – but also in the way this mandate is being implemented today.”

Former president Donald Trump announced the US’ withdrawal of the US from UNESCO in 2017, citing financial considerations, the need for reform and the organization’s “continuing anti-Israel bias.”

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the US decision to rejoin.

Israel, which pulled funding from UNESCO in 2011 and left the organization in 2019, was aware of the US move ahead of time and has indicated to Washington that it would not oppose its efforts to rejoin the organization.

Azoulay, a Jewish former minister of culture in France, drew cautious optimism in Israel and the US when she was elected to head UNESCO in October 2017.

She had reportedly fought to get both countries to reconsider their withdrawals, including brokering compromises that saw anti-Israel resolutions delayed or softened.

File: French Jews hold Israeli flags as they demonstrate against UNESCO, near the cultural agency’s Paris headquarters, July 17, 2017. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

In a statement welcoming the US move, UNESCO cited a number of changes it had made to improve efficiency since Washington pulled out.

“New initiatives have been launched enabling UNESCO to fully tackle contemporary challenges – such as the ethics of artificial intelligence or the protection of the ocean – while emblematic new field campaigns – including the reconstruction of the old city of Mosul, Iraq – have allowed the Organization to reconnect with its historical ambitions,” said UNESCO on Monday.

“Lastly, administrative reforms, rolled out since 2018, have made UNESCO more efficient and financially sound,” it continued.

Washington had squirmed over China’s growing influence in the agency, and last week contacted UNESCO privately to inform the organization that it would rejoin, Axios reported Sunday, citing a State Department spokesperson.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks at the daily briefing at the State Department in Washington, February 25, 2022. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via AP)

The US withdrawal under Trump, which went into effect in late 2018, came seven years after the Obama administration suspended funding to UNESCO after the Palestinians were admitted as members.

The United States paid about 22 percent or $80 million of the Paris-based agency’s annual budget until then.

Israel joined both US initiatives, suspending funding to UNESCO in 2011, and losing its voting rights alongside the US as a result. Israel also formally withdrew from UNESCO in 2019, some 69 years after it had joined, citing the continued singling out of the Jewish state for criticism and condemnation.

Israel was particularly angered by decisions that included recognizing the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank, as a Palestinian world heritage site in danger. The Tomb of the Patriarchs is revered as the biblical burial place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs. Israel says the Hebron resolution — which refers to the city as “Islamic” — denies thousands of years of Jewish connection there.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in April that the United States had been harmed by its absence from UNESCO, pointing to its role in education and the emerging field of artificial intelligence.

“When we’re not at the table shaping that conversation and so actually helping to shape those norms and standards, well, someone else is. And that someone else is probably China,” Blinken said.

Israel too considered rejoining under the previous government.

US President Joe Biden talks with reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, May 26, 2023. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The US has racked up about $500 million in unpaid dues to UNESCO, which it will have to pay to resume full membership rights. Congress approved the sum in December, as the administration of US President Joe Biden has made it a priority to rejoin “to counter what it sees as the growing influence of the Chinese government on the UN agency’s agenda,” according to Axios.

The legislation gave Biden the power to waive a US law that requires an end to US funding to any UN organization that recognizes Palestine as a state, and includes a snap-back clause that will stop US funding if that happens.

The moves to rejoin UNESCO are taking place now so that it can run for a seat on the body’s executive board in the upcoming November elections, the report said, citing a source briefed on the issue.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay speaks during a news conference after a visit to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, March. 6, 2023. (AP/Hadi Mizban)

Azoulay’s office sent a letter on Friday to the ambassadors of all 193 member states calling a meeting scheduled for Monday, during which she “will provide urgent strategic information,” according to communication seen by Axios. Azoulay further called for a special general conference meeting in July to approve the US’s plan to rejoin.

The US previously withdrew from UNESCO under the Reagan administration in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt, and used to advance Soviet interests. The US rejoined in 2003, before leaving again under Trump.

Agencies contributed to this report. 

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