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Do we still need UNESCO?

2 January 2018

The US has announced its intention to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at the end of 2018. Has this international body outlived its usefulness?

Maxwell L. Anderson

Since its foundation in 1945, UNESCO has raised global awareness about threats to mankind’s natural and cultural heritage, and has encouraged collective action among member states from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Through conventions, declarations, and statements addressing critical issues, UNESCO has shed light on problems besetting an ever more crowded and fractious planet.

As international threats to peace and security escalate, UNESCO offers one of very few channels for dialogue. Its lofty aspirations often fall to earth. But it cannot be denied that UNESCO has contributed to a more enlightened world view, by promulgating consensus about topics ranging from human rights and gender equality to HIV/AIDS, access to education, biodiversity, climate change, protection of cultural heritage on land and underwater, and ethical conduct in various fields of human endeavour. With 195 member states and 10 associate members, UNESCO provides a unique platform for deliberation and debate bridging national and regional divides.

In the realm of heritage, UNESCO has adopted conventions that foster greater responsibility for the care of the natural environment, monuments, museums, and archaeological sites, yielding national laws that compel compliance with international norms. It is difficult to imagine how so many nations divided by so many factions could have reached common ground in the absence of a moderating body like UNESCO.

The adoption of the World Heritage Convention of 1972 was a watershed in raising consciousness about dangers faced by our natural and manmade environment. Mobilising some 50 nations, UNESCO had already launched a campaign in the early 1960s to salvage multiple monuments and temples at the Egyptian site of Abu Simbel, which would otherwise have been submerged by the creation of the Aswan High Dam reservoir. Since then, the conferral of World Heritage status has helped safeguard more than a thousand cultural and natural sites in 167 nations, highlighting threats to their integrity. It must also be said that an unintended consequence has been damage to several sites because of excessive tourism and commercial exploitation, requiring better oversight by UNESCO and greater vigilance at the local level.

UNESCO has faced setbacks as a result of waste, corruption, and political infighting. Supporters of Israel protested about UNESCO’s admission of Palestine as a full member in 2011, as well as the recognition of Hebron, a city in the south of the occupied territories, as a Palestinian World Heritage Site in 2017.

At times, arriving at agreement about critical issues has proven insufficient. The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) led to the passage of national laws by signatories, but the illicit import and export of cultural artefacts has not been curbed. The convention’s failure to address looting has left the archaeological community with minimal ammunition in its arsenal to prevent the spoliation of sites or the black market that engenders it. Were it to create and maintain a global database of looted and stolen artefacts, UNESCO could actually provide a much-needed information resource.

On the positive side of the ledger, heads of state and the world’s wealthiest philanthropists have come to embrace goals championed by UNESCO, including ocean conservation. Without UNESCO’s early and persistent attention to acidification, the decimation of marine species, and the scourge of plastic pollution, the fate of the oceans would most likely not have seized the imagination of civic and private sector leaders, spawning ambitious remedial efforts.

The announcement in October 2017 that the United States plans to exit the organisation in December 2018 has been read by some as evidence that UNESCO’s productivity and value are incommensurate with its cost, and that it is a hopelessly politicised body. Most people would conclude, however, that this exit is consistent with the current administration’s abrogation of international accords and abandonment of comity. Once a new administration is installed in Washington, it can be hoped that the US will rejoin the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also known as the Paris Agreement, as well as UNESCO – and help lead it to achieve more impartial deliberation and more effective action.

Maxwell L. Anderson is president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and author of Antiquities: What Everyone Needs to Know (OUP, 2016).

Simon Thurley

In December, the big news from UNESCO was that it had listed the techniques of Neapolitan pizza-makers, or pizzaiuoli, as intangible cultural heritage. This UNESCO list now features some 470 activities, including a type of polo played in Kyrgyzstan called Kok boru, in which participants traditionally score goals with a dead goat. They join the better known UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, which currently number 1,073 across the globe.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

It is hard not to welcome something as joyous as the protection of pizza-twirling or goat polo. Like the US, however, the UK has long had an uneasy relationship with UNESCO; it was only in 1997 that the UK rejoined a 12-year absence. Withdrawing from the organisation in 1985, the Conservative overseas aid minister Timothy Raison explained to the House of Commons that it was inefficient, top-heavy, badly managed, and had been ‘harmfully politicised’ – accusations that sound remarkably similar to those recently aimed at UNESCO by the Trump administration. In 2016, when the UK Department for International Development (DFID) undertook a review of its multilateral aid programmes, UNESCO scored lowest of the 36 bodies with which the government worked. Apparently the then international development secretary, Priti Patel, would have liked the UK to leave UNESCO again.

DFID, of course, only deals with the humanitarian side of UNESCO’s work; the cultural side sits with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Here relationships have been no easier. UNESCO’s Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (the Hague Convention) was so low down on the list of priorities that it took 63 years for the UK to ratify it, with the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act passing into law only this year. Neither is DCMS in any hurry to push for legislation to ratify the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001, which has been ratified by 56 other countries.

Meanwhile, several of England’s World Heritage Sites are under review by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape site was threatened with danger listing in 2012; the Westminster site, in which the Houses of Parliament sits, was similarly threatened in June 2017, and the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City site is on the danger list, and was warned in July that it would be removed unless the city reconsidered its regeneration plans. A report on the costs and benefits of World Heritage Site status by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2006 looked at whether the accolade brought anything other than grief to those that won it. The report advised against expecting economic gains or benefits to regeneration or tourism, but pointed out that in terms of education and conservation there was a probable upside.

This was faint praise, particularly as World Heritage Sites in this country are under the scrutiny of the national advisory body to UNESCO, the UK committee of ICOMOS (The International Council on Monuments and Sites). This NGO, it is widely felt, adds another layer of complexity and (often) confusion to an already complex landscape of heritage protection and planning. ICOMOS UK, stripped of public funding first by English Heritage (now Historic England) and then by Historic Scotland, limps on as a membership organisation producing reports on UK World Heritage Sites and other conservation matters. It rarely sees eye to eye with Historic England and its views are more or less ignored within government – but it guides and advises UNESCO on UK World Heritage Sites, and thus has some influence.

The impact of UNESCO on UK heritage and culture has been very mixed and remains so. Some might say that, in the cases of the Westminster and Liverpool sites, that UNESCO’s disapproval is justified in the face of the failure of the UK planning system to protect them from development. But this very much depends on one’s definition of harm. The UK has a sophisticated and democratic planning system, and the government and local authorities have questioned the right of unelected international ‘experts’ to challenge what has been decided under UK law. Indeed, some believe that UNESCO should concentrate on making lists of pizza-makers and endangered sports rather than involving itself in the complex issues of national planning policy.

Simon Thurley was chief executive of English Heritage from 2002–15.

From the January 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.