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U.S. first lady Jill Biden attended a flag-raising ceremony at UNESCO in Paris on Tuesday, marking Washington's official reentry into the U.N. agency after a controversial five-year hiatus.

Issued on: 25/07/2023 - 15:41

3 min

US First Lady Jill Biden speaks during a flag raising ceremony at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to mark the United States' return to the organization, July 25, 2023. US First Lady Jill Biden speaks during a flag raising ceremony at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to mark the United States' return to the organization, July 25, 2023. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

The Stars and Stripes was hoisted up outside UNESCO's headquarters with the Eiffel Tower on the skyline to rousing applause and a rendition of the national anthem. Before the flag-raising, Biden made remarks about the importance of American leadership in preserving cultural heritage and empowering education and science across the globe.

“I was honored to join you today as we raise the flag of the Unites States, the symbol of our commitment to global collaboration and peace,” Biden said. She said that this move was an example of President Joe Biden's pledge about “restoring our leadership on the world stage.”

“We are so proud to rejoin UNESCO,” she proclaimed, acknowledging that “as a teacher I’m a little biased.”

The United States had announced its intention to rejoin UNESCO in June, and the organization’s 193 member states earlier this month voted to approve the U.S. reentry. Tuesday’s ceremony, which also featured a speech by UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, formally signified the U.S. becoming the 194th member — and flag proprietor — at the agency.

We are putting “the Star Spangled banner back where it belongs,” Azoulay said. 

“In the time of divisions, rifts and and existential threats, we reaffirm our union here today," Azoulay also said, referring to current global political instabilities. “Together we will be stronger."

"The return of the United States has a meaning that is bigger than UNESCO," she added.

Read moreChina, AI and a say on world order: Why the US rejoined UNESCO

Azoulay emphasized the significance of the move for multilateralism and “universality” as a whole — in a speech that name checked the war in Ukraine. She said the momentum of UNESCO will grow with the reintegration of the U.S., thereby strengthening the organization’s initiatives throughout the world. 

The U.N. agency’s special envoy Forest Whitaker, the American actor, also gave a speech praising the spirit of peace through education that “could not have been possible without UNESCO.”

The U.S. decision to return to Paris-based UNESCO was based mainly on concerns that China has filled a leadership gap since Washington withdrew during the Trump administration. This development underscores the broader geopolitical dynamics at play, particularly the growing influence of China in international institutions.

The U.S. exit from UNESCO in 2017 cited an alleged anti-Israel bias within the organization. The decision followed a 2011 move by UNESCO to include Palestine as a member state, which led the U.S. and Israel to cease financing the agency. The U.S. withdrawal became official a year later in 2018.

In preparation for its return, the Biden administration requested $150 million for the 2024 budget to go toward UNESCO dues and arrears, with plans for similar requests in the ensuing years until the full debt of $619 million is paid off. This represents a significant portion of UNESCO’s annual operating budget of $534 million, highlighting the substantial financial role the U.S. played in the agency before its departure.

Before its withdrawal, the U.S. was the single biggest funder of UNESCO, contributing 22% of the agency’s overall funding. 

This is the second time the U.S. has returned to UNESCO after a period of withdrawal. The country previously left the organization in 1984 under the Reagan administration, citing mismanagement, corruption and perceived advancement of Soviet interests. It rejoined in 2003 under George W. Bush’s presidency.

Jill Biden, who teaches English and writing at a Virginia community college, brings with her a passion for education and personal experience in the field to represent the United States in Paris. In the following days, her visit will also serve to pay tribute to American history and cultural heritage in France.

On Wednesday, Biden will go to the Brittany American Cemetery to honor the U.S. soldiers who lost their lives during World War II. This tribute will serve as a solemn reminder of the shared history and sacrifices that bind the U.S. and France together.

She will conclude her trip to France at the renowned Mont-Saint-Michel, a UNESCO world heritage site, to underscore the importance of preserving heritage locations around the world. Her visit to the iconic site will serve to highlight the shared global responsibility in safeguarding global cultural treasures, according to her program.


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