The United States, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, has officially requested to rejoin UNESCO, which left under Donald Trump, the director general of the UN agency, Audrey Azoulay, announced on Monday, welcoming “a strong act”.
“I wish to inform you, on behalf of the Department of State, that the United States has the honor to propose a plan for its return to UNESCO,” wrote Richard Verma, an assistant to the Secretary of State, in a letter to Ms. Azoulay, seen by AFP and read at a meeting of representatives of the 193 member countries in Paris, the organization’s headquarters.
“If UNESCO is doing well, it will be even better with the return of the United States,” said Ms. Azoulay. “This is a great day for UNESCO, for multilateralism,” she continued.
The acceptance of the American return can only be done after a majority vote of the other States, expected in July, in accordance with UNESCO regulations.
In unison with the Japanese ambassador, who welcomed a “historic development” because “the return of the United States to UNESCO is essential”, more than 40 countries supported the holding of a quick vote on the matter and favored American reinstatement.
China, via its ambassador to UNESCO Yang Jin, has indicated that it will not oppose this return. “China is ready to work with all member states, including the United States,” he said, despite the stormy relations between Beijing and Washington.
This American decision is part of the general context of the increasingly strong rivalry between the two countries and while China wishes to transform the international multilateral order put in place after the Second World War, of which UNESCO is an emanation. .
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States announced in October 2017 to leave UNESCO, of which they had denounced in particular the “persistent anti-Israeli biases”. This withdrawal, accompanied by that of Israel, had been effective since December 2018.
In March, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had however estimated that the American absence allowed China to weigh more than the United States on the rules of artificial intelligence (AI), when UNESCO produced a recommendation on the ethics of AI from 2021.
“I really believe that we should come back to UNESCO, not to give UNESCO a gift, but because the things that happen at UNESCO matter,” he told a committee of the US Senate.
“They work on the rules, norms and standards of artificial intelligence. We want to be part of it,” he added.
Since 2011, and the admission of Palestine to UNESCO, the United States, then led by Barack Obama, had stopped all funding for the UN organization for culture, education and science, a huge halt for it, while American contributions represented 22% of its budget.
The American debt to UNESCO, contracted between 2011 and 2018, is today 619 million dollars, more than the annual budget of UNESCO, estimated at 534 million dollars.
“The new American money will do a lot of good for UNESCO,” a diplomat from this agency said, on condition of anonymity, recalling that the interruption of contributions from Washington “had caused great difficulties. We had to tighten the screws in a lot of functions”.
And this diplomat underlined “the rather extraordinary relations” with the Biden administration, the American president “and the first lady” having, according to him, been “involved” in the return to UNESCO.
The United States said it had asked the United States Congress to disburse $150 million for the 2024 fiscal year, with an equivalent amount to be disbursed in subsequent years “until our arrears are cleared”, according to the letter signed by Richard Verma , given Thursday to Audrey Azoulay by an American delegation, according to UNESCO.
The United States had already left UNESCO in 1984, under Ronald Reagan, citing the supposed uselessness and budgetary overflows of this organization which they then rejoined in October 2003.
Russia and Iran, other UNESCO member countries with which Washington has complex relations, did not speak out openly on Monday. The scenario of a rejection of the American candidacy during the July vote is considered unlikely at UNESCO.