UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations whose mission is to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, arts, sciences and culture. Founded in 1945, UNESCO has 193 member states and 12 associate members.
Three of UNESCO’s members (Cook Islands, Niue and Palestine) are not U.N. members and three U.N. member states (Israel, Lichtenstein and the United States) are not UNESCO members. It wasn’t always that way. The U.S. and Israel were longstanding members of UNESCO who withdrew from the agency in 2018 because of UNESCO’s relentless anti-Israel bias.
Last week, UNESCO announced that the U.S. will rejoin the agency in July. The move is no surprise. It has been in the works for some time. Rejoining UNESCO is consistent with the Biden administration’s China-related foreign policy goals since it will enable the U.S. to reclaim its prominence in UNESCO, where China’s influence had grown during the U.S. absence.
And the move has congressional support. Last December, Congress approved an allocation of more than $500 million to pay the U.S. debt to UNESCO and allow the U.S. to return to the agency as a full member. The legislation includes a snap-back provision to end funding if the Palestinians obtain member-state status in the agency. And finally, Israel notified the State Department more than a year ago that it would not oppose a U.S. return to UNESCO.
In addition to the inherent benefit of the U.S. reengagement in the overall activity of UNESCO there are some programs in which U.S. input could be particularly helpful. For example, the agency has numerous worldwide educational efforts that address several significant topics, including promoting the eradication of antisemitism and hate, educating about the Holocaust and preserving the waning memory of the Holocaust. American input on these issues should enhance the messaging and help amplify the programs.
In addition, U.S. reengagement can help support the efforts of current UNESCO leadership to avoid the promotion and adoption of one-sided resolutions critical of Israel and prejudicial to the Jewish state.
We support the U.S. rejoining UNESCO. But we’re not naive. We recognize that the U.N. and many of its agencies have a long way to go to reclaim the moral high ground on which they were founded and to erase historic bias and to provide meaningful moral guidance and service to the world community. But the rebuilding effort needs to start somewhere. And UNESCO seems to be a good test case.
We hope that UNESCO will continue to improve its responses to emerging challenges, continue to modernize its management and sensitize agency members and personnel to the importance of even-handed policy development. We also hope it will continue to reduce political tensions in its program delivery.
There is a lot to be gained from a world body devoted to UNESCO’s founding principles. We join those who will be watching carefully to be sure that UNESCO stays true to its mission.