UNESCO on Thursday approved new rules on registering items to the Memory of the World program, a reform sought by Japan aimed at preventing disagreements between member countries over politically sensitive issues such as wartime history.
Screening of applications for the heritage project had been previously done behind closed doors with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization director general making a final decision on listings, a process criticized by some countries for lacking transparency and fairness.
Under the new rules, every application is disclosed to member countries before screening begins at the advisory committee of the program. The director general then presents the panel’s conclusion to the UNESCO executive body, composed of its member countries, and asks for a final decision on whether to register.
Member states are now allowed to file an objection after applications are made public. Screening does not start until the objection is withdrawn.
Japan urged UNESCO to improve transparency in the screening and listing process after being caught off guard in 2015 by the registration of Chinese documents relating to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, over which Japan has disputed claims made by China.
UNESCO has suspended the screening of new applications following listings in 2017 but it plans to resume the process under the new rules which is almost certain to raise issues for Japan.
Tokyo is opposing the application by civic groups from China and South Korea for the listing of documents related to “comfort women.”
The term is a euphemism for the women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. They were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.
UNESCO in 2017 postponed the decision on whether to register the documents.
Under the new rules, such groups and regional governments can no longer file an application directly with UNESCO. They must do the process through a national government.
The Japanese government on Friday hailed the change.
“We will continue to be involved in the program in a bid to achieve its original purpose of promoting friendship and mutual understanding between member states,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference.
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