US rejoins UNESCO, reversing Trump withdrawal


A photo shows the UNESCO logo during a speech by its director-general. — AFP
  • Extraordinary session of UNESCO votes overwhelmingly for US return.
  • 132 members vote in favour, 10 against and 15 abstentions.
  • Dissenting voices included Iran, Syria, China, North Korea, Russia.

PARIS: The United States rejoined UNESCO on Friday, reversing its withdrawal during the Trump administration, the UN’s cultural agency said.

Donald Trump announced in 2017 that he was pulling the United States out of UNESCO, alongside Israel, accusing the body of bias against the Jewish state, a decision that took effect in 2018.

An extraordinary session of the UN body’s General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the return of the United States, an AFP reporter present at the vote said, with around 132 members voting in favour, 10 against and 15 abstentions.

Dissenting voices included Iran, Syria, China, North Korea and Russia, whose delegates appeared to seek to delay the vote through several statements on procedure and suggested amendments.

The United States, a founding member of UNESCO, was a major contributor to its budget until 2011, when the body admitted Palestine as a member state.

That triggered an end to the contributions under US law, leading up to the formal withdrawal announcement six years later.

Audrey Azoulay, a former French culture minister who has headed UNESCO since 2017, made it a priority of her term to bring the US back.

“This is a great day for UNESCO and for multilateralism,” Azoulay said on Friday.

“Thanks to the momentum it has recovered these past years, our organisation is again moving towards universalism with the return of the United States,” she said.

‘Actually matter’

Until the suspension of its contributions in 2011 — decided during the Obama administration — the US paid about 22% of UNESCO’s budget, or $75 million.

But the US Congress, then fully controlled by the Democratic Party of current President Joe Bide, in December paved the way for the United States to restore funding, setting aside $150 million in the budget.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March that the US absence from UNESCO was letting China write 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 said.

The US had already withdrawn from UNESCO in 1984 — under the Reagan presidency — and rejoined the Organisation after an almost 20-year absence in October 2003.

“The United States has already withdrawn twice. We’re not sure how many more times we’re expected to welcome them back,” a North Korean diplomat told AFP, asking not to be identified by name.

The US is in membership arrears amounting to $619 million, owed for the period of 2011 and 2018 — more than the agency’s annual budget, estimated at $534 million.

The United States will make payments over coming years to UNESCO to cover its debt, the organisation said.

Paris-based UNESCO is the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organisation.

As part of it activities it compiles a list of world heritage sites, defends press freedom, promotes sustainable development and runs education programmes.

In addition to renewing its regular payments to the organisation, the US has pledged to make voluntary contributions towards education initiatives in Africa, programmes promoting the memory of the Holocaust and the protection of journalists, Azoulay said Friday.

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