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UNESCO Urges United States To Rejoin - 2001-12-19

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has undergone dramatic reforms since the United States withdrew its membership 17 years ago. UNESCO's newest attempt to woo Washington back lies in rebuilding the educational system in Afghanistan.

In December 1984, then-U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz wrote a polite resignation letter to the UN's cultural arm. At the time, many accused the Paris-based body of nurturing corruption and an anti-Western bias.

Seventeen years later, America still has not rejoined, even though Washington maintains an observer status.

But since then, UNESCO has slashed its staff, and drastically overhauled its management - and its reputation. Former Secretary of State George Shultz now supports rejoining UNESCO. So does another ex-Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

Last May, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to rejoin UNESCO. The Bush administration is currently reviewing the merits of rejoining. A decision is expected in the coming months.

Now, UNESCO's director general Koichiro Matsuura is offering a new and compelling argument for rejoining: Afghanistan.

"What will be very crucial in the post-Taleban Afghanistan is education. We have to reconstruct the education system in Afghanistan for the benefit of the Afghan people. And UNESCO is prepared to play a major role," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Matsuura says one of UNESCO's top mandates is education. And in Afghanistan, the organization faces a daunting challenge. Only half of Afghanistan's boys and seven percent of its girls went to school in 1995, according to the most recent U.N. estimates. And that was before the former Taleban regime banned girls' education.

Mr. Matsuura also says UNESCO can help foster dialogue between different cultures and religions. That concept has taken on new importance since the September 11th attacks in the United States.

Michael Southwick, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for global issues, agrees.

"Whether you buy into the [Samuel] Huntington thesis about a clash of civilizations - or maybe they're not clashing, maybe they're just sort of rubbing up against each other - you have to recognize there are some problems between Islam in general and the West. And the place to discuss those kinds of issues, as there would be with other cultures of the world, is UNESCO," Mr. Southwick says.

But one of the best arguments for rejoining UNESCO, some say, is Mr. Matsuura himself.

Since taking office two years ago, the Japanese diplomat has frozen UNESCO's budget, cut staff by 30 percent and instituted a new, competitive hiring policy. Mr. Matsuura is also redesigning the organization's focus to include freshwater management and bio-ethics, along with education and cultural heritage preservation.

Mr. Matsuura's performance has been praised by a number of European and U.S. diplomats, and by several American congressmen.

But others criticize some UNESCO programs as wasteful. They also argue UNESCO's mandate - covering art, science and culture - is too ambitious. Ultimately, says Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the United States in Paris, chances the United States will rejoin are low.

"You can see the constituency in the U.S., which is hostile to UNESCO. You know who they are, and you know they have a determined agenda. Because it's so fluffy, you cannot see a constituency in favor of returning to UNESCO. That, of course, is why it's very unlikely, I think, that the U.S. will," he says.

For their part, few UNESCO diplomats appear to object to a future American membership. That includes those from Iraq. Ahmad Jalali, the Iranian president of UNESCO's general conference also believes Washington should rejoin.

"The participation, like the participation of other nations, will be important," he says.

The U.S. is not the only country to have left UNESCO. Britain and Singapore also quit, in the mid-1980s. But in 1997, the United Kingdom rejoined. As one European diplomat put it, the best way to reform the U.N. system is to be inside it.