Updated Jun 12, 2023 - World

U.S. plans to rejoin UNESCO in July, UN agency says

A general view of the UNESCO meeting in November 2019 in Paris. Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A general view of the UNESCO meeting in November 2019 in Paris. Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. last week privately notified the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that it has decided to rejoin the agency nearly six years after the Trump administration announced it was withdrawing U.S. membership, a State Department spokesperson told Axios.

Why it matters: Rejoining UNESCO is one of the Biden administration's foreign policy goals — mainly in an effort to counter what it sees as the growing influence of the Chinese government on the UN agency's agenda.

Catch up quick: After Palestine became a full member of UNESCO in 2011, the Obama administration stopped providing funding to the organization because it was barred to do so by U.S. law.

  • In October 2017, the Trump administration announced it was leaving UNESCO over what it described as anti-Israel bias. Israel announced that it would leave the organization not long after.
  • In February 2022, the Israeli government notified the State Department that it wouldn’t oppose a U.S. return to UNESCO. The Israeli position paved the way for some Democrats and Republicans in Congress to support the move.

Last December, Congress approved a bill that allocated more than $500 million needed to pay the U.S. debt to UNESCO and allows it to return as a full member.

  • The legislation includes a snap-back clause that states that if the Palestinians obtain a member-state status in a UN agency, the U.S. will stop its funding again.
  • The bill will sunset on Sept. 30, 2025, when the current director general of UNESCO leaves office but could be extended further by Congress.

Driving the news: Richard Verma, the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, delivered a letter to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay on June 8, proposing a plan for the U.S. to rejoin the organization, a State Department spokesperson said.

  • The plan, which is a result of long negotiations between the State Department and UNESCO, lays out a timetable for paying the U.S. debt and for being readmitted to the agency’s executive board, a source briefed on the plan said.

What they're saying: UNESCO said in a statement on Monday that the U.S. planned to rejoin the organization in July, "on the basis of a concrete financing plan."

  • "Indeed, in a letter sent to the Director-General, the U.S. Department of State welcomed the way in which UNESCO had addressed in recent years emerging challenges, modernized its management, and reduced political tensions," the statement added.
  • "The proposed financing plan must now be submitted to the General Conference of UNESCO Member States for their approval. Some Member States have requested that an extraordinary session be held soon so a decision can be made."

What to watch: The U.S. wants to rejoin UNESCO and begin paying its debts now so that it could run for a seat on UNESCO’s executive board in the upcoming elections in November, a source briefed on the issues said.

  • A source briefed on the issue said the group of Western countries in UNESCO already agreed to hold a seat for the U.S. in case it decides to rejoin.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with UNESCO's statement.

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