First Lady Jill Biden Tuesday marked the United States’ return to the United Nations’ cultural organization after five years away, amid concerns that its absence has let China take a lead in key areas like artificial intelligence and technology education.
“I was honored to join you today as we raise the flag of the United States, a symbol of our commitment to global collaboration and peace,” Biden said in Paris, as the American flag joined 193 others under the shadow of the city’s major cultural landmark, the Eiffel Tower. “The United States is proud to join as a member state of UNESCO. Madam Director-General, you’ve worked long and hard to help us realize this goal.”
The roots of the withdrawal date back to 2011, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization gave Palestine full membership as a state. Palestine is not a U.N.-recognized state. That led the Obama administration to freeze U.S. financial contributions to UNESCO – about a fifth of the agency’s budget.
In 2017, the U.S. State Department cited “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO” as reasons to complete the withdrawal the following year.
The Biden administration now faces a $619 million debt. The Biden administration has asked for $150 million in the 2024 budget.
UNESCO also has designated 1,157 properties around the world as having major cultural significance, including the ancient town of Bethlehem, technically in Israel but classified by UNESCO as being in Palestine.
The prominent American Jewish Committee told VOA they supported the U.S. decision to rejoin UNESCO despite its concerns about what it sees as lack of recognition of Jewish culture and the Jewish state.
“UNESCO is an important agency,” Jason Isaacson, chief policy and political affairs officer for the American Jewish Committee, told VOA. “It’s not perfect. Nor is any other U.N. entity. But it does really important work. And it is a vehicle for soft power, for the exercise of soft power in the United States to not be in that agency meant that other players — competitors, rivals of the United States — could have a seat at the table, could have cultural programs, scientific exchanges, educational programs, in countries all over the world, especially the developing world in places and in ways that the United States could not.”
Recognition of iconic sites
UNESCO’s most famous totems are its world heritage sites, which include monuments that have weathered long stretches of human history. This month, a massive heat wave forced authorities in Athens to close the Acropolis, a massive edifice that has loomed over the Greek capital for three millennia.
Simmering ethnic conflict in Ethiopia in recent years has hampered religious pilgrims’ access to the massive, ancient rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, a mountain town known in the 13th century as ‘New Jerusalem.’
And the COVID pandemic has kept footfalls light on China’s great Great Wall, the massive fortification whose construction began in the 3rd Century B.C. and UNESCO estimates once boasted a total length of 20,000 kilometers.
This year, UNESCO added another entry to its vaunted list: the historic center of the bustling Ukrainian port city of Odesa, a critical port for Ukraine’s agricultural exports.
This month, a Russian airstrike tore through the city, dropping a missile through the roof of its soaring cathedral and shattering the altar.
UNESCO issued a condemnation.
“On this night alone in Odesa, nearly 50 buildings were damaged, 25 of them architectural monuments,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “The historic center. A world heritage site that UNESCO has taken under its protection.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, UNESCO has verified damage to 270 of its designated “cultural sites” in Ukraine.
The heavy responsibility of carrying all this cultural weight is lighter now that the U.S. is back, said UNESCO’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay.
“In these times of division, rifts and existential threats to humanity, we reaffirm here and today our union,” she said. “The star-spangled banner of the United States of America will float in a few moments over the Paris skies.”