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US decides to rejoin UNESCO and pay back dues, to counter Chinese influence

Americans owe $600 million in back dues after pulling out over dispute regarding Palestine
FILE - The logo of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) is seen during the 39th session of the General Conference at the UNESCO headquarters, Oct.31 2017 in Paris. The United States is ready to rejoin the U.N. cultural and scientific agency UNESCO – and pay more than $600 million in back dues — after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organization’s move to include Palestine as a member. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

U.N. cultural and scientific agency UNESCO announced Monday that the United States plans to rejoin — and pay more than $600 million in back dues — after a decade-long dispute sparked by the organization’s move to include Palestine as a member.

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

The U.S. and Israel stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, and the Trump administration decided in 2017 to withdraw from the agency altogether the following year, citing long-running anti-Israel bias and management problems.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma submitted a letter last week to UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay formalizing the plan to rejoin. Verma noted progress in depoliticizing debate about the Middle East at UNESCO and reforming the agency’s management, according to the hand-delivered letter, obtained by AP.

Applause rang out in the solemn UNESCO auditorium as Azoulay announced the plan to ambassadors at a special meeting Monday, and delegate after delegate stood up to welcome the news. The return of the U.S., 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 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known for its World Heritage program as well as projects to fight climate change and teach girls to read.

China’s ambassador to UNESCO, Jin Yang, said his country “appreciates” UNESCO’s efforts to bring the U.S. back, saying its absence had a “negative impact” on the agency’s work.

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

Since her election in 2017, Azoulay has worked to address the reasons the U.S. left, through budget reforms and building consensus among Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli diplomats around sensitive UNESCO resolutions. Azoulay — who is Jewish — won broad praise by UNESCO ambassadors for her personal efforts to address U.S. concerns around Israel in particular.

The U.S. decision to come back “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 modernized the functioning of the organization,” Azoulay told The Associated Press.

She met with 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 U.S. decision to return is for the long term, regardless of who wins next year’s presidential election.

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

Under the plan, the U.S. government would pay its 2023 dues plus $10 million 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 already requested $150 million 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 $619 million is paid off.

That makes up a big chunk of UNESCO’s $534 million annual operating budget. Before leaving, the U.S. contributed 22% of the agency’s overall funding.

Undersecretary of State for Management John Bass said in March that the U.S. absence from UNESCO has strengthened China, and ’’undercuts our ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free world.”

He said UNESCO is key in 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 U.S. absence plunged the agency into financial uncertainty. UNESCO diplomats described belt-squeezing across agency programs and aggressive efforts by Azoulay to boost voluntary financing from other countries to fill gaps.

One diplomat expressed hope that the return of the U.S. would bring “more ambition, and more serenity” — and energize programs to regulate artificial intelligence, educate girls in Afghanistan and chronicle victims of slavery in the Caribbean.

The diplomat said that the agency would also “welcome” Israel back if it wanted to rejoin. There was no immediate response from the Israeli government.

Israel has long accused the United Nations of anti-Israel bias. In 2012, over Israeli objections, the state of Palestine was recognized as a nonmember observer state by the U.N. General Assembly. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for an independent state. Israel says the Palestinians’ efforts to win recognition at the U.N. are aimed at circumventing a negotiated settlement and meant to pressure Israel into concessions.

The United States 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.

—Angela Charlton, The Associated Press

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