Cultural policy News USA

US government strengthens ties with Unesco

Obama administration seeks waiver to allow payments to resume

The US withdrew funding from Unesco in 2011. Photo: AFP

The US government has confirmed it is committed to restoring relations with Unesco, with the intention of resuming funding to the cultural agency. On 9 July, Barack Obama announced that the lawyer and writer Crystal Nix-Hines, who also raised funds for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, has been nominated as the next US ambassador to Unesco. If the Senate approves her post, Nix-Hines will succeed David Killion, whose four-year term is up this summer. Meanwhile, on 4 July the US jazz musician and composer Marcus Miller was appointed the Unesco Artist for Peace at a ceremony in Paris.

“This is yet another demonstration of the interest the US has for our mission, and of Unesco for an even greater co-operation with America and the Americans,” says Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director-general in charge of culture.

The US withdrew its funding from Unesco in October 2011 after the Palestinian Authority was accepted as a full member of the cultural agency; until then Washington provided nearly £50m a year, around 22% of Unesco's total budget. Laws passed in 1990 and 2004 currently prevent the US from paying dues to any United Nations body that accepts Palestine as a member.

A spokeswoman for the State Department says the US government is currently lobbying Congress to relax legislation. “We have been working with Congress to find a solution that allows the president, where appropriate, to waive existing legal restrictions so that we can pay our financial contributions and fully participate in UN organisations that serve our national interests,” she says.

In April the Obama administration earmarked $77.7m of its 2014 state and foreign operations budget for Unesco, according to reports. It said that if the waiver legislation was passed, the sum would cover Unesco funding for 2014, while separate “contingency requirements” requests would cover the two years of arrears.

The withdrawal of funding has divided opinion in the US, with conservatives viewing the move as an appropriate response to Unesco granting membership to a non-sovereign entity. But the Obama administration argues that its ability to make contributions to Unesco “is essential to advancing US interests worldwide and strengthening US global leadership, influence, and credibility”.

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