The mission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific and cultural reforms in order to increase respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedom as proclaimed in the U.N. Charter. It is best known for its designation and protection of historical sites around the world: Its heritage list includes Stonehenge, China’s Great Wall, Mount Fuji, the temples of Nikko and Kyoto, and hundreds more.
There is no mention of politics in that mandate and there is no obvious reason why the organization should be embroiled in political controversies. Yet, today UNESCO is paralyzed by, and risks destruction by, politics. In the latest blow, the United States last week announced that it would withdraw from the organization and Israel said that it will do the same. The next day, UNESCO picked its next director general, former French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay. Her first task is reforming the organization to restore solvency and depoliticize its operations.
The U.S. and UNESCO have been at odds since 2011, when all but 14 of its members voted to allow Palestine to join as a member state. That was a direct challenge to U.S. policy: While it favored statehood for Palestine, Washington wanted Israelis and Palestinians to reach their own agreement on sovereignty and membership in international organizations would follow. Reversing the order would change the nature of negotiations between the two parties and make a peace agreement more difficult.
After that decision, Washington halted funding for the organization but maintained an office to retain some influence over its operations. The U.S. was paying $80 million annually, about one-fifth of UNESCO’s budget. Today, the U.S. owes about $550 million and those arrears are one of the reasons that the Trump administration decided to withdraw.
The other reason is Washington’s belief that UNESCO has an “anti-Israel bias.” That conclusion reflects the decision to offer Palestine membership, as well as resolutions that condemn Israel’s policies at religious sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the naming of ancient Jewish sites such as the Jewish Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian heritage sites. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week denounced UNESCO, calling it a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.” He then said that Israel would follow the U.S. lead and leave the organization.
This is not the first time the U.S. has left UNESCO. Washington withdrew in 1984, alleging that the organization favored the Soviet Union and “extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press.” The U.S. rejoined in 2003.
The U.S. and Israel are not the only countries to complain about UNESCO’s politicization. Ukraine has protested Russian attempts to legitimize its annexation of Crimea through UNESCO and Japan at one point held back dues during a dispute over the inclusion of Chinese-supplied documents — which Tokyo considered suspect — relating to the 1937 Nanking Massacre in its Memory of the World program. (The funds were eventually paid.) Japan and South Korea have also fought over awarding Meiji Era industrial sites World Heritage status, a fight in which Japan prevailed, but Tokyo also pledged to provide information at many of the sites that would address Korean concerns.
Irina Bokova, outgoing director general of UNESCO, expressed “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and called it a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism. She rightly noted that “universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity.” The task of restoring that universality falls on her successor, Azoulay. Reforming the organization is her first assignment. She must trim the budget and rationalize an organization that employs 2,000 people. She must convince countries that have withheld funds — and the U.S. is not the only sinner — to pay up. Then she must restore its focus on nonpolitical issues, such as protection of World Heritage sites and advocating for scientific collaboration and education.
Stripping politics from UNESCO will be difficult, if not impossible, however. History is a narrative, and like all stories, it is written from a perspective and intended to tell a particular tale. And as Japan’s disputes with South Korea and China have demonstrated, history itself is political. Azoulay’s task is to convince UNESCO members that her organization can serve a larger purpose — its intended purpose — if they minimize their inclination to use UNESCO for domestic political purposes.