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Worried about Chinese influence, the United States agrees to join UNESCO

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The United States is set to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in July 2023, nearly six years after President Donald Trump pledged to withdraw the United States from the agency responsible for protecting heritage sites around the world.

Audrey Azoulay, Director General of Unesco, today announced the news to the representatives of the organization’s 193 Member States. His speech was greeted with much applause.

The United States will join “based on a concrete funding plan,” Azoulay said, which will now be submitted to the General Conference of Unesco member states for approval. The reintroduction of the United States will therefore depend on a vote scheduled for next month.

Unesco, headquartered in Paris, is the governing body for a host of international and multilateral cultural initiatives. Among these, Unesco oversees the World Heritage Committee, which is responsible for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and the protection of the 1,157 areas with the status of World Heritage Sites. Unesco also maintains formal relations with the International Council of Museums (Icom).

Richard Verma, the US undersecretary of state for management and resources, delivered a letter to Azoulay last week, formalizing the US government’s reintegration plan. The letter hails the way UNESCO has “modernized its management and reduced political tensions”, a spokesman for Azoulay said in a statement.

Re-engagement with Unesco is a long-standing goal of President Biden’s administration, which is seeking to rebuild alliances with international organizations.

The United States has signaled its intention to withdraw its membership from Unesco in 2017, mainly due to political tensions related to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

But, after taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration grew concerned that, in the absence of the United States, the Chinese government was exerting undue and growing influence on the unesco political agenda. .

After the United States withdrew, China increased its contributions to Unesco to around $65 million, becoming the largest contributor to the agency’s annual budget. In March 2018, Unesco appointed Xing Qu, a Chinese diplomat, as Deputy Director General. Since then, 56 Chinese heritage sites have been protected by the World Heritage Committee, making China the second most protected country in the world, after Italy. China has also systematically blocked Taiwan’s attempts to become a member of Unesco.

Joining Unesco will be hailed by Biden as a hard-fought political and diplomatic victory. In December 2022, his administration successfully pushed a $1.7 billion federal spending bill through the US Congress, with bipartisan support. The law project included a waiver which explicitly indicated that the American government would seek to reconnect with Unesco in order to “counter Chinese influence”.

The bill provided for a sum of more than 600 million dollars that the United States would pay to Unesco in arrears. The United States withheld funding in the years prior to its full withdrawal in 2017. The full refund of backdated dues now allows the United States to return as a full member without delay.

The news will be a financial boon for Unesco, which has an annual operating budget of 534 million dollars. Before its withdrawal, the United States contributed about $80 million a year.

The US government’s relationship with UNESCO became strained in October 2011, when agency members voted to admit Palestine as a full member. Palestine is a non-member observer state at the United Nations, but is not officially recognized by a number of major countries around the world, including the United States.

President Obama’s administration was legally required to suspend its funding to the United Nations following the vote, due to legislation passed by the US Congress in 1990. It also began suspending its rights to vote within the organization in 2013, arguing that Unesco’s recognition of the State of Palestine was a waiver of the UN’s requirement to remain neutral on all global conflicts.

The UN, on the other hand, has refused to name Russia for its role in the war in Ukraine, although the organization has published an exhaustive list of cultural sites that have been damaged as a result of the war.

In October 2017, the Trump administration took a further step by announcing its decision to leave Unesco entirely, before officially leaving the organization in January 2019. Israel also left the organization at the same time. President Trump said Unesco betrayed an “anti-Israel atmosphere”, saying the organization’s politicization meant it had strayed significantly from its core mission of promoting education, culture and culture. of scientific research.

Negotiations have since taken place with the Israeli government which, in February 2022, declared that it would not oppose a return of the United States to Unesco.

write in The arts journal in December 2022, Anna Somers Cocks analyzed how political activities within Unesco has threatened some heritage sites.

“Unesco has moved away from the principles underlying the 1972 World Heritage Convention to protect [heritage] sites as a commons,” wrote Somers Cocks. “Member States have gradually transformed what was a technical and professional approach into a political approach, with alliances and secret agreements to get sites accepted on the list of World Heritage sites and to avoid sanctions in the event of mismanagement. of a website.”

The Trump administration has also argued that the United States bears a disproportionate burden in terms of funding Unesco, calling for greater financial accountability and transparency.

“Administrative reforms, rolled out since 2018, have made UNESCO more efficient and financially sound,” said Azoulay’s spokesperson.

Azoulay was elected head of Unesco in November 2017. She has since led mediation negotiations with the US government “which have made it possible to reduce political tensions and find a consensus on the most sensitive subjects, such as the Middle East,” the spokeswoman said. .

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