US to retain leadership role at UN cultural agency

The United States has succeeded in its bid to remain on UNESCO’s executive board, the only way to wield American power at the world’s cultural and scientific agency now that the U.S. government is no longer funding it.

By: Thomas Adamson, AP

The victory follows a U.S. diplomatic charm offensive aimed at fending off resistance to its re-election. Following a special visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Paris-based UNESCO, Switzerland withdrew its candidacy and a Monday morning deadline expired for others to throw their hats into the ring — paving the way for the American re-election.

The U.S. bid to remain on the board was expected to run into resistance after it stopped paying its dues following the body’s decision to admit “Palestine” in 2011. U.S. law prohibits contributions to international organizations that recognize Palestinian statehood.

As a result of its financial arrears, the U.S. lost its vote in UNESCO’s general conference in 2013. The seat on the executive board was thus the last remaining formal tool of American influence at the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which the U.S. co-founded in 1945 following World War II.

The executive board, which consists of 58 member states each with a four-year term, prepares the UNESCO agenda and is responsible for implementing programs adopted by the General Conference.

UNESCO diplomat Michael Worbs told The Associated Press that no other country submitted a candidate to challenge the U.S. seat. That means there are six candidates for the six board seats assigned to Western Europe and North America — making Wednesday’s vote on the re-election at the agency’s biennial general conference a formality.

The U.S. delegation to UNESCO is not commenting ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

The suspension of U.S. contributions, which account for $80 million a year — 22 percent of UNESCO’s overall budget — brought the agency to the brink of a financial crisis and forced it to cut American-led initiatives such as Holocaust education and tsunami research over the past few years.

Yet it worried many in Washington that the U.S. was on track to becoming a toothless UNESCO member. Kerry arrived in Paris two weeks ago to make the case to UNESCO’s 195 member states and nine associated members at an American-hosted lunch.

A few days later, Switzerland — the seventh contender for six seats — decided to “postpone” its candidacy until 2019.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry told AP the postponement “is not to be interpreted as favoritism for the USA” and that the decision to withdraw from this year’s race came out of “an appreciation of different initiatives that Switzerland is leading.

Switzerland highlighted its stance that the U.S. should pay back the dues owed to UNESCO, which now total more than $300 million.