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The backstory: In 2011, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) allowed Palestine to join the agency as a full member. This sparked pushback from the US, pulling funding to the agency because US law barred it from continuing. In 2017, the US decided to leave UNESCO under then-President Donald Trump. At the time, the country said this move was because of the agency’s “anti-Israel” bias and other management problems. Israel announced it would be leaving UNESCO, too.
More recently: Since the US left the group, there have been some reforms within the agency to move away from politicized controversy, especially in the Middle East. But in the past few years, the US has become concerned that China is filling the gap it left when it pulled out of the agency, influencing its policymaking. It’s been especially concerned when it comes to China’s impact on standards for AI and tech education all over the world.
In February 2022, Israel told the US that it would be okay with the US returning to UNESCO. Last December, US Congress approved a bill to pay the American debt of US$500 million in back dues to UNESCO and move toward returning as a full member of the agency.
The development: Last week, The US deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Richard Verma, submitted a letter to UNESCO with a plan to rejoin. At some point in the next few weeks, UNESCO will have a vote about the US rejoining, but that’s more of a formality at this point. It’ll probably become a full member again next month.
“It’s a historic moment for UNESCO,” said the group’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay on Monday. “It’s also an important day for multilateralism.″
“Being a member of an international organization is a serious issue, and we hope that the return of the US this time means it acknowledges the mission and the goals of the organization,” said Chinese ambassador Jin Yang.
“If we’re really serious about the digital-age competition with China, from my perspective, in a clear-eyed set of interests, we can’t afford to be absent any longer from one of the key fora in which standards around education for science and technology are set,” said US Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass about the US decision to rejoin UNESCO.