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Japan to pay dues again as UNESCO signals reform

TOKYO — Japan plans to resume annual contributions to UNESCO now that the organization has postponed a decision on a contentious issue and indicated a willingness to better handle politically sensitive matters. 


Tokyo had withheld funding on the grounds that some countries were using the organization for political purposes. Chinese and South Korean civic groups had nominated materials related to wartime “comfort women” for addition to the list of historically significant documents, with the support of South Korea’s government. This dismayed Japan, which argued that the move violated a 2015 agreement with South Korea to settle the issue “finally and irreversibly.”


UNESCO decided in October to postpone registering the documents. Its executive board voted unanimously that month to take steps to improve transparency in the review process for Memory of the World nominations. New operational guidelines are expected in 2019. While details have yet to be worked out, a mechanism will likely be included for opposing sides to voice opinions when dealing with politically charged nominations.


The organization’s new director-general, Audrey Azoulay of France, has expressed an openness to reform and consistently asserted that the organization should not exacerbate political tensions.


In light of these developments, the Japanese government has decided to resume paying dues, which are normally paid in spring.


Tokyo has faulted UNESCO’s standards and lack of transparency in the past. Noting a growing number of contentious nominations, a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that “these aren’t issues that can be resolved by document preservation experts talking behind closed doors.”


Japan suspended contributions last year in response to the 2015 registration of Nanjing Massacre-related documents nominated by China. It ultimately made the roughly 3.8 billion yen ($33.6 million) payment in December, with then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida citing progress on reform.


The U.S. said in October that it would withdraw from UNESCO over “anti-Israel bias,” including the July listing of the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site. Israel followed suit. Washington had contributed $80 million a year to the organization — 22% of its budget — but suspended these payments in 2011, the year UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member.

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