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US to rejoin UNESCO to compete with China

June 12, 2023 at 3:16 pm

This photograph shows the logo of UNESCO during the 75th anniversary celebrations of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 12 November 2021. [JULIEN DE ROSA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

The United States has notified the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) of its intention to rejoin the international body nearly six years after withdrawing from the membership, Axios reported today. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay informed ambassadors of the member states that the US Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, Richard Verma, submitted a letter last week formalising the plan to rejoin.

“This 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 modernised the functioning of the organisation,” explained Azoulay. “It is a strong act of confidence in UNESCO and in multilateralism.”

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US officials claim that the decision to rejoin the organisation was motivated by concerns that China is filling the gap left by the US within UNESCO policymaking, notably in setting standards for artificial intelligence and technology education around the world. According to the Independent, America’s Undersecretary of State for Management, John Bass, said in March that the US absence from UNESCO has strengthened China, and “undercuts our ability to be as effective in promoting our vision of a free world.”

Bass added that UNESCO is active in setting 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 move comes after Congress approved a bill last year to allocate more than $500 million needed to pay the US debt to UNESCO in an effort to allow its return as a full member, reported Axios. The return of the US is expected to face a vote by UNESCO’s 193 member states next month, said one diplomat.

The US left the UN organisation in 2017 during the Donald Trump presidency over allegations of anti-Israel bias by UNESCO. Israel also withdrew from UNESCO at the same time as the US. Washington and Tel Aviv stopped funding the organisation after its members voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011. Both Israel and the US lost voting rights in 2013.

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