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What next for UNESCO?

10 November 2017

The withdrawal of the US from UNESCO in October can be seen as more of the same from a Trump administration that is seeking to pull back from international commitments. The US decision, however, dates back to 2011 when the Obama administration suspended funds after UNESCO State Parties voted to grant Palestine full membership. With full membership came the ability to nominate sites for World Heritage status. The recent full-scale US withdrawal happened as a direct consequence of this and the subsequent declaration of three World Heritage sites in Palestine: Bethlehem (2012); the Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem (2014); and, most controversially, Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town (2017). On the day that the decision was announced, the Jerusalem Post captured the Israel delegation’s outraged reaction with its headline ‘UNESCO rules Caves of the Patriarchs as Palestinian.’

The UNESCO declaration was worded to mitigate this reaction and emphasise the global cosmopolitan nature of the site:

The site of Al-Ibrahimi Mosque/The tomb of the Patriarchs whose buildings are in a compound built in the 1st century AD to protect the tombs of the patriarch Abraham/Ibrahim and his family…became a site of pilgrimage for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The declaration also had the effect of immediately placing the site on the ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list and further directing international attention towards the regional conflict.

UNESCO’s celebration of cultural heritage is meant to be about diplomacy and the recognition of each other’s common humanity. The World Heritage list is a currency of dignity that sees, in the best scenario, each nation state offering up places, sites and landscapes that they value in order for others to know about them and value them too (and in many cases, help to protect them). UNESCO’s project is both political and material; every act that identifies the past as important in the present is also about the future.

UNESCO’s mission of ‘building peace in the minds of men and women’ presupposes a common mind. But current political shifts undermine the shaky assumption of people belonging in place and across time through their heritage. The very logic of heritage is being challenged by rapid globalisation, digital interconnectivity and intergenerational tensions.

Although the view from UNESCO today is somewhat bleak, this is not the first time that the US has withdrawn. It did so in 1984, officially due to fear of attacks to press freedom. Critics suggested that the 1984 withdrawal was influenced by the directorship at the time of Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow of Senegal and his ambition to move towards a more equal representation for less economically powerful countries. The US rejoined in 2002.

The loss to UNESCO of US funds is considerable and is going to have a tangible effect on its ability to carry out its global mission (total US arrears since 2011 is $542,671,681). The announcement of a new director general, Audrey Azoulay, may help smooth the path as she is French of Jewish-Moroccan heritage and her biography is one of multi-culturalism and hope. Her father has long been involved in efforts to find solutions for peace in the Middle East in his role as an advisor to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. Each new director general of UNESCO signals a symbolic renewal, a symbol that has to fit the political climate of the time. UNESCO’s challenge is to successfully gain consent for a material vision of the future that blends diplomacy with stubborn optimism.