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The U.S. says it wants to rejoin UNESCO after exiting during the Trump administration

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay delivers a speech Monday at the group's headquarters in Paris to announce the United States' request to resume membership in the organization.
Alain Jocard
/
AFP via Getty Images
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay delivers a speech Monday at the group's headquarters in Paris to announce the United States' request to resume membership in the organization.

The U.S. may soon rejoin UNESCO several years after exiting the body, in part because of what the Trump administration called a bias against Israel.

UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — said in a press release Monday that the State Department had sent the Paris-based organization a letter announcing its decision to rejoin the educational and cultural body, which is widely known for its list of World Heritage Sites.

"This is a strong act of confidence, in UNESCO and in multilateralism," UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay said in a statement. "Not only in the centrality of the Organization's mandate — culture, education, science, information — but also in the way this mandate is being implemented today."

Congress agreed last year that the U.S. could make financial contributions to UNESCO, and the group said in December that the country could return as a member, though the proposed plan must be approved by member states.

The State Department did not immediately reply to NPR's request for comment.

In late 2017, the State Department announced it would leave UNESCO the following year over a perceived anti-Israel bias, financial woes and other concerns. Nikki Haley, who was the U.S. ambassador to the UN at the time, praised UNESCO's purpose but claimed the group's "extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment."

The U.S. cut funding off under former President Obama in 2011 following a vote by UNESCO member states to admit Palestine.

The State Department said the move triggered "longstanding legislative restrictions." The Foreign Relations Authorization Act, passed in 1990, forces the U.S. to cut off support to any UN group that gives the Palestinian Liberation Organization the same standing as other member states.

This isn't the first time the U.S. has pulled out of UNESCO only to rejoin later.

The country exited UNESCO in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan, citing "poor management and values opposed to our own," including advocating for limits on freedom of the press, according to the State Department. The U.S. wouldn't rejoin the body for nearly two decades.

In 2002 President George W. Bush announced a return to UNESCO, praising reforms to the management structure and the group's renewed dedication to the values of press freedom and universal education.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez