PARIS — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday launched a charm offensive at UNESCO in a bid to keep America's seat on the world cultural agency's executive board despite not having paid hundreds of millions of dollars in dues for the past four years.
Kerry made the case for U.S. re-election for another four-year term on the board to a gathering of UNESCO's 195 member states and nine associate members as he traveled between meetings in Italy and Spain.
The bid ahead of next month's vote is likely to run into resistance as the U.S. stopped paying its dues to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization following the body's decision to admit Palestine in 2011. As a result of that the U.S. lost its vote in UNESCO's general assembly in 2013.
U.S. law prohibits it from providing contributions to international organizations that recognize Palestinian statehood. Before 2011 the U.S. contributed about 22 percent of UNESCO's annual budget. Its arrears now total more than $300 million. The Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to persuade Congress to restore the funding for several years.
Kerry said the U.S. remains determined to resolve the funding issue and that continued U.S. presence on the executive board would actually make it easier to convince lawmakers in Washington to come to an arrangement.
"We are seeking re-election to the executive board because we believe that both the United States and UNESCO are better off the deeper our ties extend," he said. "And in standing for re-election, both President (Barack) Obama and I are also pledging to work with our former colleagues in the U.S. Congress, and do all we can to restore U.S. funding to UNESCO in full. And we have been candid about the fact that this will be much easier to accomplish if the United States retains its seat on the executive board."
More importantly, Kerry argued that U.S. leadership is important for fighting extremism, protecting cultural heritage and promoting world press freedom, science and education. Since stopping to make its contributions, the U.S. has continued to co-sponsor UNESCO events and conferences, including one on tsunami warnings. And, it will host a high-level meeting at UNESCO next month on countering the Islamic State group and other violent extremist groups.
"As each of you considers the future of UNESCO and its leadership, I ask you to please consider the United States," Kerry said.
UNESCO may be best known for its program to protect the cultures of the world via its Heritage sites, which include the Statue of Liberty and Mali's Timbuktu.
But its core mission, as conceived by the U.S., a co-founder of the agency in 1946, was to be an anti-extremist organization. In today's world, it tackles foreign policy issues such as access to clean water, teaches girls to read, works to eradicate poverty, promotes freedom of expression, and gives people creative thinking skills to resist violent extremism.