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UNESCO has always been mired in politics and feuds, but that shouldn’t hurt its work

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef made international headlines this week. This was not good news for the reef, described by David Attenborough as “one of the greatest and most magnificent natural treasures the world possesses”.

A report filed by the UNESCO World Heritage Center recommended adding the reef to the list of 53 other World Heritage sites considered “endangered” – a move the Morrison government suggested was prompted by pressure policies.

The “endangered” classification is important for Australia as the reef is estimated to provide 64,000 jobs and contributes A $ 6.4 billion annually to the economy.

If the World Heritage Committee downgrades the reef as a World Heritage site, it will almost certainly hurt its attractiveness as a tourist destination and therefore Australia’s economic benefits.

But why is such a report from this United Nations agency so important? The reason is that the World Heritage Committee carries considerable weight on the world stage – and politics has indeed been an unfortunate part of its operations since its inception.

The Australian government said it was “blinded” by the UN recommendation to list the Great Barrier Reef as “endangered”.
KYDPL KYODO / AP

“Clearly, there was politics behind that”

UNESCO’s mandate to build peace through international cooperation in the fields of education, science, culture and media freedom derives from its founding principles in 1945 after the Second World War. The preamble to its constitution declares,

… Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be built.

Nations are elected to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at a biennial conference of the 193 Member States of UNESCO. This committee has significant power – it is authorized to make decisions on behalf of the world. And while UN member states can complain about its decisions, none can challenge the committee’s independence or authority.

The current chair of the World Heritage Committee is China, which adds to the reason why Australia protested so loudly against his recommendation.

Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley and Foreign Minister Marise Payne immediately phoned UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in Paris to express their deep concerns. Ley said,

This decision was flawed and there was clearly politics behind it, and it thwarted the proper process.

The head of the UNESCO World Heritage Marine Program, Dr Fanny Douvere, however, pointed out that the report was a rigorous scientific document with contributions from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and official government reports on water quality – assessed and analyzed by a team of experts from the World Heritage Center.

Moreover, she said, work on the report began years ago and the Chinese government was “unaware” of the recommendations made.

We have yet to see how this altercation plays out, possibly at the next World Heritage Committee meeting in China in July.

How UNESCO is structured

Behind the scenes of UNESCO there is a complex interplay of international politics and UN bureaucratic processes and actions which sometimes influence the work of the agency.

I was appointed to a senior level within UNESCO from 1995 to 2005, working both in a field office and at its headquarters in Paris, and I played a central role in the attempts of the organization to reform and decentralize its operations in the early 2000s. So I have a good knowledge of the beast from within.

The first thing to realize is that there is a gap between the headquarters and the field. Almost all the attention is focused on the UNESCO Headquarters. This is where the ambassadors of the Member States have their offices and where all the important committees are based. Consequently, decisions on international conventions and actions are the responsibility of the Parisian administration.

But this is not where the most effective program action takes place – it is the work of more than 50 field offices around the world. And UNESCO’s field offices are making a real difference.

In my own work in Indonesia, as an example, we reformed the entire basic education system in the country from centralized rote learning to decentralized open classroom exploration. We have also helped the country emerge from total media censorship by helping pass legislation to ensure a free press and have built a radio network of 32 independent stations across the country trained in investigative journalism.

Headquarters provided excellent technical assistance, but the field office put on the show and found the funding.

Much of the criticism leveled at UNESCO focuses on its overly bureaucratic structure and low productivity. This criticism is largely fueled by the attention to what is happening at headquarters in Paris, and not in the field offices in places like New Delhi, Jakarta and Maputo.



Read more: The Australian government has been “blinded” by the UN recommendation to place the Great Barrier Reef in danger. But it’s not a big surprise


Member States withdrawing funding

The second thing to understand about UNESCO is that it is a “technical” agency, not a “funding” organization like, for example, the United Nations Development Program.

Because the funding depends on the Member States, this has real consequences. Sensitive political issues can anger member states, causing them to withdraw from the organization – along with their funding.

For example, after Palestine was added as a full member in 2011, the United States and Israel stopped paying their dues. The United States, which accounted for over 20% of UNESCO’s budget, accumulated some $ 600 million in unpaid dues.

The Trump administration then withdrew the United States completely from the organization after the World Heritage Committee designated the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage Site in 2017. The United States Ambassador to the United States to the West Bank UN representative Nikki Haley called the politicization of UNESCO “chronic embarrassment.”

Israel and the United States opposed the decision to designate Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage site which was also “in danger”.
Bernat Armangue / AP

It was not the first time that the United States had withdrawn. In 1984, the Reagan administration withdrew from UNESCO amid complaints about the way it was run and what one US official, Gregory Newell, called “foreign politicization.” He decried what he perceived as

… An endemic hostility towards the institutions of a free society – especially those that protect a free press, free markets and, most importantly, individual human rights.

Bearing in mind UNESCO’s mandate

UNESCO’s listing of the Great Barrier Reef as “endangered” is at its heart a moral decision concerned with minimizing the effects of climate change and urging Member States to act.

But because it is played out at the headquarters level, there is a whiff of political commitment. It is, after all, that states play the politics of power with their members, their funding and their influence.



Read more: Is UNESCO World Heritage Status for Cultural Sites Killing What He Loves?


But the organization is so much more when you move away from the sparkle of the world’s capitals to the field. Here, the agency’s business is to build trust and connect with communities to make things happen.

This is in line with UNESCO’s mandate, which is important to remember when attention is diverted to self-serving quarrels among its members.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.