Updated July 2, 2023.
The People’s Republic of China voted on June 30, 2023 to deny U.S. re-entry to UNESCO membership, Just weeks before, China had pressured the U.S. State Department to renew a bilateral cultural property agreement under a U.S. law implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention, despite China’s blatant destruction of minority heritage and genocidal repression in Xinjiang and Tibet. UNESCO’s governing board voted 132-10 to welcome the U.S. back – China, Russia, North Korea, Palestine, Belarus, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua and Syria opposed readmitting the U.S. The U.S. also provides cultural property protections to Syrian cultural property. The U.S. will pay $600 million in back dues when it rejoins the organization. In the past, the U.S. has provided approximately 25% of UNESCO’s budget.
On June 12, Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay announced that the Biden administration intended to rejoin UNESCO. The U.S. announcement reversed the 2017 decision by President Donald Trump to exit UNESCO completely amidst allegations of anti-Israel bias. At that time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley described UNESCO as a “chronic embarrassment” for taking actions such as designating the Tomb of the Patriarchs, (Haram Al-Ibrahimi) the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, and the Tomb of Rachel (Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque) as Palestinian heritage sites.
The U.S., which had been the largest donor to UNESCO, suspended its payments of dues in 2011, when UNESCO voted to add Palestine as a member. Until 2017, the U.S. State Department maintained a UNESCO office and diplomatic contacts. However, the Trump administration pulled out of the international organization, saying that it intended to maintain observer status only after December 2018, although discreet relations were maintained by individuals, for example, in related State Department sections such as Education and Cultural Affairs.
The U.S.’s return results from Congress’ December 2022 agreement authorizing financial contributions to UNESCO. UNESCO announced that some member states are urging that an extraordinary session be held soon so the U.S. membership can be quickly approved.
Political analysts have speculated that the U.S. renewal of membership in UNESCO is intended to counter excessive influence by the Peoples Republic of China, a major contributor to UNESCO. The organization has for the most part failed to challenge China’s destruction of Uyghur and Tibetan built heritage, language and culture – including China’s most recent campaign in Xinjiang to go house to house to seize and burn all “unapproved” books. Only recently has mild criticism been voiced. Other authoritarian states with appalling records of destruction of minority heritage, such as Azerbaijan, have also received praise rather than condemnation from UNESCO. Observers say that UNESCO’s reliance on financial contributions has caused the organization to turn a blind eye to these and other countries’ violations of human, educational, and cultural rights, forming a continuing challenge to UNESCO’s mission to provide a platform for dialogue between cultures and an open forum for international debate.
For additional information on UNESCO’s response to Azerbaijan’s ethnic and cultural cleansing of seized territory see the independent analysis by Caucasus Heritage Watch: Caucasus Heritage Watch: Azerbaijan is Destroying Armenian Heritage, CPN, 9/29/2022. For earlier reporting on Azerbaijani cultural destruction and payoffs to UK and EU politicians and media, see UNESCO EXPOSED!, CPN, 3/19/2019.
For additional information on China’s cultural erasure and genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang, see: SPECIAL REPORT: 2023 CHINA MOU – Building China’s Art Monopoly and Destroying Minority Culture and Identity, CPN, 5/26/2023.