The Case for U.S. Re-Engagement in UNESCO


Immediately following a vote of UNESCO’s General Conference in 2011, the U.S. was forced to stop funding UNESCO – the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO’s mandate covers a vast range of programs and initiatives related to promoting education, intercultural dialogue, human rights, innovation and the sciences, the arts, and communication. The U.S. has long supported many of these programs, as they promote U.S. interests and reflect many of our nation’s core values. Since the U.S. provided 22 percent of the organization’s assessed budget (approximately $80 million per year), the absence of U.S. funds greatly impacted their programming. In November 2013, after two consecutive years of not paying our dues to UNESCO, the U.S. lost its vote in the General Conference, per the organization’s rules. In October 2017, the Trump Administration announced that it was withdrawing from the organization altogether. As such, over those six years, UNESCO lost the equivalent of approximately $500 million in U.S. contributions.

Rise of China

Without the U.S. at the table, UNESCO’s work as a standard-bearer for human rights, free expression, and open inquiry has been weakened. China has now replaced the U.S. as the organization’s largest financial contributor (providing more than 15% of the organization’s assessed budget in 2020) and has increasingly sought to use the organization as a platform to advance its own interests, part of a larger push to wield its growing clout at the UN. For example, China has pushed UNESCO to support vocational and job training programs in countries partnering with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to “’[enhance] capacity building in Belt and Road Initiative countries’”. Given the BRI’s potential implications for U.S. national security and economic interests—particularly in the Asia-Pacific region—this is a concerning development. Unfortunately, the U.S., due to its absence from UNESCO, is limited in its ability to push back.

Programs Impacted by Cuts: To understand what a cut-off in funding has meant – and how detrimental to U.S. national interests – one need only look at a sampling of the various programs that either had their budgets slashed or work curtailed/suspended because of the loss in U.S. funding: Transparency and Accountability of the Judiciary in Iraq; Iraq Literacy and Curriculum Development Programs; Literacy for Afghan Police; Holocaust Education; Groundwater Resources Exploration to Combat Drought & Famine in the Horn of Africa; and Promoting Education in Support of Nation-Building in South Sudan.

Provided below is some additional information on UNESCO programs and efforts that support core U.S. interests:

  • UNESCO is the leading organization on global education efforts, particularly through its Education For All (EFA) Program, which seeks to ensure that all children—particularly girls, minorities, and those in difficult circumstances—have access to quality primary education. UNESCO’s mandate to promote inclusive and equitable quality education worldwide is also playing a role in efforts to combat violent extremism. UNESCO also organized—with U.S. support—its first-ever High-Level Conference on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) through Education. UNESCO developed a teacher’s guide for CVE to support educators.
  • UNESCO has played a key role in responding to the education-related disruptions of COVID-19. In response to widespread school closures in the beginning of the pandemic, UNESCO established a task force to disseminate technical assistance and information on best practices to governments working to provide education to students that are out of school. In addition, UNESCO launched the Global COVID-19 Education Coalition with members of the private sector, including Microsoft, to help countries deploy remote learning systems to their students. More recently, UNESCO has disseminated guidance to countries on effective practices for keeping schools open, as well as ways to help students that have fallen behind during the pandemic, including how to identify at-risk students and concrete steps to promote learning recovery.
  • UNESCO recognizes that Holocaust education is fundamental to promoting respect for human rights and encourages all member states to incorporate Holocaust education into their national curricula. Since 2007, UNESCO has been working to develop educational materials and run training seminars for teachers to help impart the lessons of the Holocaust to schoolchildren around the world. In 2022, as part of annual commemorations tied to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, UNESCO organized a number of events, including a commemoration ceremony and panel discussion on Jewish artists who were killed in the Holocaust. UNESCO has also launched a campaign, called “Protect the Facts”, which seeks to raise public awareness in order to combat Holocaust denial. Restored U.S. engagement with UNESCO would foster more of these types of programs and as evidence has shown, likely lead to greater support for Israel than by being absent.
  • UNESCO sets standards on information and communications including: working to improve freedom of information; promoting standards for the safety of local journalists and foreign correspondents who are often targeted in conflict areas; and working with governments to ensure legal freedom of the press. For example, in the Middle East, journalists in a UNESCO program have been trained in investigative journalism skills, ethics, professionalism, conflict sensitivity, and the interactions of media and democracy. These types of programs are particularly important in light of growing authoritarianism—and threats against the independence and safety of journalists—around the world.
  • The organization works in myriad ways to protect cultural heritage sites around the world, a particularly critical issue given the fact that extremists have sought to destroy treasured archeological sites and sell items of cultural value on the black market. In 2015 and 2016, for example, the organization supported efforts by the Malian government to reconstruct and restore 14 mausoleums—the oldest of which dated back to the 13th century—which had been destroyed by extremist Islamist groups who had occupied Timbuktu in 2012. The organization has also worked in close cooperation with the Malian government to reconstruct other monuments damaged during the occupation and safeguard medieval manuscripts. Outside of the Sahel region, UNESCO has also been front and center in efforts to rebuild heritage sites in Mosul, much of which was destroyed in fighting between ISIS fighter and Iraqi and Western coalition forces. In 2018, UNESCO launched an initiative called “Revive the Spirit of Mosul”, which has mobilized funding to rebuild the city’s iconic Al-Nouri Mosque as well as homes and schools in the Old City of Mosul.
  • UNESCO’s World Heritage program is also beneficial to the U.S. Currently, dozens of sites around the country are jockeying for World Heritage designation. One of the reasons for this is the economic benefits that can accrue from such designation. In fact, past studies have shown in some places an overall economic impact of $100 million, with 1,000 new jobs, and bringing in an additional $2 million in hotel tax revenue. As the National Park Service noted in 2016, “U.S. nominations are made at the discretion of the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, and there is no fixed schedule for doing so. The Assistant Secretary considers a number of factors in identifying properties for nomination. One important current factor is the statutory prohibition on the U.S. paying dues to UNESCO or the World Heritage Fund. This situation has created considerable uncertainty about the U.S.’s ability to continue to make World Heritage nominations.”

What U.S. Law States

In October 2011, the General Conference of UNESCO voted to admit Palestine to the organization as a member state. This action triggered an immediate cut-off of funding from the U.S. Title IV of P.L. 101-246, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, stipulates that, “no funds to be appropriated by this Act or any other shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member.” Several years later, in 1994, Congress broadened this prohibition to encompass “any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

These prohibitions are absolute, applying to all funds (assessed and voluntary) that the U.S. contributes. Plus, unlike many other funding limitations imposed by Congress, the President is accorded no authority to waive them on the basis of vital U.S. national security, economic, or humanitarian concerns. Following the UNESCO vote in 2011, the Obama Administration lobbied Congress to soften these provisions by providing the President with authority to waive them “on a case-by-case basis, if the President determines and certifies…that to do so is important to the national interest of the United States.” Ultimately, these efforts did not get traction on Capitol Hill. After two consecutive years of not paying its dues, the U.S. lost its vote at UNESCO in late 2013.

Where We Stand Now and Recommendation

The issue was raised again when President Biden took office. In its FY’22 budget request, the Biden Administration requested a waiver that would allow the U.S. to begin channeling funds to UNESCO, as well as $75 million under the Contributions to International Organizations (CIO) account to pay one year of dues. The Senate followed suit in its FY’22 SFOPS bill, including modified waiver language and the $75 million requested by the White House. BWC supports the inclusion of these provisions in final FY’22 appropriations legislation.