An Open Access Article

Type: Research Article
Volume: 2020
Keywords: United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, World Heritage Sites
Relevant IGOs:

Article History at IRPJ

Date Received: 2020-12-28
Date Revised:
Date Accepted: 2021-01-05
Date Published:
Assigned ID:

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: Seeds of Peace, Weeds of War


Author affiliation(s): (1) Student of Diplomacy and International Affairs, EUCLID University; (2) Secondary Teacher Licensure, Regis University, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA; (3) Bachelor of Arts in the Theatre Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California, USA.

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Corresponding Author:

Pr Devender BHALL, HDR (Editor)


“Since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

     ~ UNESCO Constitution

“It is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean. It is what comes out of him that makes him unclean.”

     ~ Matthew 15:11

UNESCO is arguably the crown jewel of the United Nations intragovernmental system, yet its many accomplishments and achievements are largely unsung, overshadowed as they are by the boisterous grandstanding of the UN General Assembly. In short, UNESCO is—or should be—to Education, Science and Culture what the Olympics are to Sport: a transnational celebration of the Athlete in a spirit of goodwill competition. Despite the sometimes-disappointing aspects of cheating and national politics, the Olympics remain a much-anticipated and celebrated international achievement. If only UNESCO could achieve the same.

UNESCO’s founding vision and guiding constitution challenges the international community to reach beyond the mere words of treaties and international law—certainly good aims—to the true source of international conflict: cultural differences and misunderstandings. By beginning an educational, scientific and/or cultural dialogue, UNESCO  seeks exploration of this shared humanity and reduce tensions before they sprout into war.

In this spirit of goodwill, this paper will analyze the overall success and challenges of the UNESCO program.

1. Introduction

In the ashes, ruins and rubble of World War II—the second part, essentially, in a two-part world war—an idea is planted: peace begins where war is fomented. In the dark soil that gives birth to violence the seeds of peace must first be sown. It is a bold idea, naïve or foolish even.

Given its founding in the ashes of World War II, the profundity of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) guiding vision is either the most brilliant transnational concept in history or simply its most absurd. Like a phoenix reborn, the very idea that the groundwork for peace lies in the “hearts and minds” of humanity is the purview of artists, not politicians or diplomats. The power of diplomacy is launched in a sweeping campaign to unite the world through a collective action of education, culture and science. Despite this vaunted vision, much of the power of UNESCO’s concept is lost in a poor public relations campaign and “guilt-by-association” with its overarching parent organization (the UN General Assembly) to its detriment; this is unfortunate.

To be sure, UNESCO is arguably the United Nation’s greatest asset and crown jewel but, sadly, it is unheralded or, what is infinitely worse, completely unknown or ignored. That was this student’s experience. For this student, an avid daily reader of two newspapers and semi-professional (layman) historian, learning more about the important work that UNESCO does was a continual discovery of surprise and delight. The guiding vision and aim of UNESCO is profound and powerful, even if its practical achievements can, at times, fall short of its ideals.

UNESCO is to the realm of Art and Science what the Olympics are to Sport: a trans-border celebration of the Athlete in a spirit of goodwill competition. Despite the sometimes-disappointing aspects of cheating and national politics, the Olympics remain a much-anticipated and celebrated international achievement. If only UNESCO could achieve the same.

Its purpose is clearly stated in its masthead: “United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization aims at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture.” Further, the organization recognizes the inherent limits in its parent company’s mission (the UN): that laws and agreements are simply not enough to secure a lasting peace. In other words, words are cheap; true peace begins deep in the heart, before words are thought and given voice. Into this void, where angels might fear to tread, steps the artist and scientist. True peace and harmony lies in image and beauty and the higher language of mathematics and scientific principal. It is deep in these unknown reaches of mutual understanding where the eye of the artist, the logic of the scientist, and the nurturance of the teacher seek to cleave out the weeds of war and sow the seeds of peace.

The idea is at once foolish and profound. A bullet once fired cannot be called back, yet a gesture or word of peace, even clumsily offered, makes a lasting impression.

2. A phoenix from the ashes: history and founding

UNESCO began in a League of Nations resolution offered on September 21, 1921. Shortly thereafter, in 1922, it was upgraded to the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC). It would be in 1945, 13 years later, before its official constitution was adopted, producing what we know today as UNESCO. As a stroke of genius, notable figures included in its founding membership included four Nobel Prize-winning figures that used their fame and reputations to endorse it: Henri Bergso, a noted philosopher; Robert Milliken, the noted physicist; and two well-known names from the arena of science, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. With such notable names, the mandate behind such an institution would be sure to attract notice and credibility. A cursory scan of the current listing of UNESCO Goodwill Ambassadors is lengthy and seemingly comprehensive, yet it is unfortunate and disappointing that it does not contain a true powerhouse American celebrity. (While First Lady Laura Bush and actor Forest Whitaker, two current ambassadors, are nothing to sneeze at, UNESCO could certainly benefit from a true powerhouse celebrity such as noted physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson or perhaps a vaunted athlete along the lines of Serena Williams or Peyton Manning.)

2.1 Information as the Great Common Denominator

UNESCO’s vision to support educators, scientists, artists, and journalists would prove to be fertile ground for cross cultural bridge-building. Further, the bedrock of “free flow of ideas by word and image” would counter the devastating effects of propaganda during World War II.

In the field of communication, the “free flow of ideas by word and image” has been in UNESCO’s constitution from its beginnings, following the experience of the Second World War when control of information was a factor in indoctrinating populations for aggression.

Certainly, this was an astute claim: governments sought to stoke anger or channel control in their populations through (mis)information. Much has been made of the power of Nazi Germany’s strong propaganda to enforce group-think in its population. There is much to be gained in this arena as interconnectivity provided by technology allows information to expand beyond government controls as evidenced by revolutions, riots, or uprisings live-streamed on social media platforms. Beyond this, active support of journalists and journalism would be a boon for freedom of press around the world.

Information and access to it is indeed the new currency in today’s international arena. This was especially noted by Ambassador Francois Delattre in his speech to the French-American society. In this speech, he states (paraphrase):

The technology held by the economic powers wherein information and technological innovation is the new “trump card” (his words). New information holds significant advantages over those countries that do not have the same access. Specifically, cyber-security—the means to protect one’s information and the ability to attack an enemy’s—is an additional concern for all levels of the military.

How powerful, then, UNESCO’s shared vision of a vast information collective, whereby all players can support and learn from each other, a “peek-behind-the-curtain” if you will. UNESCO fights for the protection of journalists and free speech across the globe. This is one prime example of the scientific innovation envisioned by these pioneer members, such as Mr. Einsten and Ms. Curie, in moving the world forward to collectively tackle mutual and threatening problems. As former British diplomat Carne Ross states, in his book The Independent Diplomat:

Everyone, including the diplomats, accepts that many of our most troubling problems are transnational in nature – pollution, bird flu, terrorism – complex in their causes and thus solutions, and require mass action to tackle. … The cliché of contemporary discussion of international affairs is a cliché for a reason: more and more of our problems are transnational in nature, and do not lend themselves to solution by individual states but only by collective action.

Collective action and shared knowledge is the best way to foster cooperation in our interconnected world. This ideal is affirmed in UNESCO’s vision statement:

Political and economic arrangements of governments are not enough to secure the lasting and sincere support of the peoples. Peace must be founded upon dialogue and mutual understanding. Peace must be built upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity.

As noted, “Peace must be built upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity,” the more we foster cooperation, the more we appreciate the diversity that binds us. It is in misunderstanding, isolation and dehumanizing people that we make enemies rather than partners.

2.2 Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder: UNESCO’s Founding Vision

In its very constitution, adopted in London on November 16th, 1945, it states clearly and eloquently:

That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed; That ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war. … in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, are agreed and determined to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.

Today, that simple yet profound vision begun in 1945, now counts 199 member states and eleven association members, as well as partners in non-governmental organizations as well as private sector institutions and businesses. It finds its headquarters in one of the great cultural centers of the world—Paris, France—with an additional 53 regional field offices and 199 national commissions throughout the world, an amazing infrastructure that seeks to support their international collective through five major issues: (1) education, (2) natural science, (3) social science, (4) culture, and (5) communication and information.

3. Soft Power: the artist’s eye and the scientist’s mind

UNESCO engages in what can be thought of as “Soft Power.” In a magazine issue devoted entirely to this type of Soft Power published by King’s College London, authors Dr. James Doeser and Dr. Melissa Nisbett state,

Art and culture can change the way people think, feel and behave. When set in the context of international relations, this is often talked about as Cultural Diplomacy or Soft Power … It stands in contrast to ‘Hard Power’, the traditional tools of which are weapons, munitions, armies and economic sanctions: the muscle and might of foreign policy.

The difference between Hard and Soft Power is quite clear. Agencies like UNESCO hope to engage the artist and scientist in a diplomatic mission of mutual understanding and cooperation, a scaffold of trust that builds to cultural acceptance. So often our misunderstandings between nations result as simply not understanding where our differences arise. Even if the language is the same, misunderstandings are common, most wryly observed by playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Britain and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

3.1 Soft Power in Science

For science, a gold standard organization supported by UNESCO is the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). It markets itself as an “Institute run by scientists for scientists.” It defines its mission as:

Foster the growth of advanced studies and research in physical and mathematical sciences, especially in support of excellence in developing countries.

Develop high-level scientific programs keeping in mind the needs of developing countries, and provide an international forum of scientific contact for scientists from all countries.

Conduct research at the highest international standards and maintain a conducive environment of scientific inquiry for the entire ICTP community.

Here we see that that ICTP is devoted to shared common knowledge, especially and notably with developing countries. This reminds one of the adage of climbing the ladder upward but reaching a hand behind to help someone else. By sharing information, countries are no longer engaged in win-lose scenarios. All benefit from mutual discoveries, allowing all countries and peoples to share in the successes.

3.2 The Soft Brush in Art

The use of “Soft Power” through Art—with a capital A—is subtler in its applications but no less effective in its outcomes, even if it cannot always be quantifiable as data. As one participant commented regarding Soft Power in a recent World Humanitarian Day gathering: “We know that it works. We know it. We just don’t know how.” Who among us is not moved by seeing van Gogh’s “Night on the Rhone” or Michelangelo’s “The Sistine Chapel” when standing before these artworks? In the same way, sharing space with people over Art—whether it be music, painting, theatre, or even food (gastrointestinal diplomacy)—creates a bond that goes beyond surface culture. As another participant said,

We can disagree on Crimea, on Georgia, but we all like Chekhov. … The seemingly safe and neutral space, and the ‘softness’ offered by art and culture, acts as the ideal tool for diplomacy. The UN is a place of strategic sophistication. … This is an interested community, with people who are culturally elevated, artistically proficient, with an aesthetic sensibility and high levels of cultural capital.

There is a recent push in UNESCO to create another “World List” along the lines of the World Heritage Sites that incorporates specific pieces of Art, as a first line offering of Soft Power. This proposed list will:

focus on movable cultural heritage such as artifacts, paintings, and biofacts. The list may include cultural objects, such as the Jōmon Venus of Japan, the Mona Lisa of France, the Gebel el-Arak Knife of Egypt, The Ninth Wave of Russia, the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük of Turkey, the David (Michelangelo) of Italy, the Mathura Herakles of India, the Manunggul Jar of the Philippines, the Crown of Baekje of South Korea, The Hay Wain of the United Kingdom and the Benin Bronzes of Nigeria.

In the above listing, you will notice the breadth and range of source countries from where these pieces originate. These cherished cultural icons reach across Time and Space to touch on those eternal principles of Beauty that bind us all and are not limited by national boundaries. Carne Ross touches on this power in his book The Independent Diplomat when he muses:

The language of international affairs is limited; all language, all terms are limited. What lies beyond contains phenomena and components of human existence that are measureless in their importance. … This is the realm of the artist, the writer, the musician, the moral philosopher, and even the imam, the rabbi or the priest. If art informs us about the nature of ourselves as individuals, why should it not also help us understand our world internationally?

Mr. Ross, having seen the limits of what he describes as “formal, anti-emotional, masculine-dominated world of traditional diplomacy,” believes in this ability of the artist to cross language and cultural barriers. In some ways, language barriers are thicker and harder to traverse than country borders. Art reaches past these to our common humanity.

Continuing in this vein, Mr. Ross shares an experience he had while engaging in complex negotiations. He remembers that at the beginning of sessions, delegates would be restless and chatter aimlessly. Emboldened with a radical idea, he played music for the delegates. This calmed them, allowed them to focus, proceeding seamlessly into exacting line-by-line editing and negotiation. The music opened up a soft space while sharing cultural beauty. The next session, a different country shared a song highlighting their own culture. This began a pattern from each country, allowing for shared appreciation of beauty and cross-cultural appreciation, in turn spring-boarding into editing and drafting as a collective and focused body.

3.3 The Soft Voice in Theater

Theater, and its cousin film, is arguably the highest combination of all the arts into one: form, movement, image, music, voice and spoken word. In a recent interview posted on the International Theatre Institute (ITI), Nick Lizaso talks about the unifying quality of art and theatre:

I believe that we need the arts to save and enrich our nation’s soul. Art, to me, is the great equalizer. For there is something in art that we all respond to in a positive, endearing way. Harmony, grace, symmetry—these appeal to each human being on a deeper level.

A brief exploration of the ITI website reveals the great range of theatrical disciplines that are used in promoting this Soft Power: Drama Theatre, Dance and Music Theatre. For this writer who works as a full-time Theater Arts instructor in the high school, the power of theatre to educate, engage and elucidate is a daily occurrence. This writer has been changed by witnessing live acts of theatre in real time, from the tragedy that touches on the broken human condition to the cathartic laughter of comedic foibles in the human makeup. All these are valued functions that create a space in which to explore our common journey and experience.

Of particular note from the ITI website is the UNESCO designation of a “Performing Arts Capital.” From the website, “The goals of the World Performing Arts Capital are to promote education, practice and experience of the Performing Arts by celebrating their diversity and transformative power in a given city, country, or region and potentially even across the world.” There follows an exhaustive list of the types of theatre promoted and supported in this aim.

This writer was quite engaged in a multi-media theatrical piece created by ITI Austria entitled “Black Swan,” included on the website to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In it, the piece explores the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki through theatre, spoken word, song and traditional maskwork. The piece reminds us of the awful nature of war, that the soldiers deployed are never “home by Christmas,” that war is, in its nature, unpredictable and destructive for both civilians and soldiers alike. The commemorative power of this piece is significant, to remind all of humanity of the dreadful cost of war anywhere, at any time.

Combining both the objective of theatre and education, UNESCO is a partner, along with Furtwangen University (HFU), Germany, for young students called “Art as Cultural Diplomacy,” an immersive and innovative leadership program. A foundational principal of its mission is encapsulated in its belief of the “Universality of Art”:

Art is an essential part of individual expression, and the process of being creative is one that is open to all, regardless of age, nationality, religious or political beliefs. The enjoyment and interpretation of art is also universal: because art appeals to human senses and emotions, it is not subject to the controls and restrictions of language and rhetoric. It is, as Goethe has pointed out, “the mediator of the inexpressible”.

This puts this writer in mind of a “Clown and Mime” mission that he undertook after graduation from high school. A performance troupe had prepared mime skits and took them on the road to churches and after-school youth-clubs in Juarez, Mexico. It was a church outreach program, but the effect remained the same: using mime and music, we reached across cultural and language barriers to communicate harmony and goodwill. This student will never forget the joy on locals’ faces seeing their northern neighbors in the colorful costumes and painted faces.

In summation, artist Olafur Eliasson, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, had this to say about the power of art to change people’s lives:

One of the great challenges today is that we often feel untouched by the problems of others and by global issues … even when we could easily do something to help. We do not feel strongly enough that we are part of a global community, part of a larger we. Giving people access to data most often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disconnected, not empowered and poised for action. This is where art can make a difference. Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.

Perhaps this power of shared humanity in these “soft places” is no more relevant and important in the safeguarding of valuable historic and natural sites.

4. Creating a marker in time and place: successes of the World Heritage sites

Without a doubt, the gold star of UNESCO’s commission is its World Heritage Sites that aim to conserve places in our world that hold special significance. In most cases, they are preservations of historic or natural sites, such as the stunning Grand Canyon of the U.S. and the equally spectacular sandstone monolith Uluru in the outback of Australia. (This writer has had the privilege of seeing some 23 of these special sites on four continents, including the two mentioned above.) In some, they are more modern, such as the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia, still a unique site in a wonderful city, a world-recognized icon that promotes international connectivity. Unfortunately, it is a fact of modern day progress that we bulldoze too much of our historical and archeological past under the wheels of progress. What better way to unite our common humanity than in an appreciation of our mutual histories. While we may come from broader reaches in the time record, it is good to understand and preserve the “historical tracks” from which we come as we progress into a smaller, more cohesive world. In that historical diversity, we appreciate our common move forward into our combined future. (Perhaps someday in the far future, the earth itself will be a type of “heritage site” against the backdrop of an extended solar system of galactic civilizations.)

From UNESCO website, it succinctly states their purpose:

Ensuring that World Heritage sites sustain their outstanding universal value is an increasingly challenging mission in today’s complex world, where sites are vulnerable to the effects of uncontrolled urban development, unsustainable tourism practices, neglect, natural calamities, pollution, political instability, and conflict.

UNESCO partners with a broad range of public, government, private, and individual enterprises to accomplish this. The interactive map on their website is a great place to grasp the scope and size of their sites around the world.

4.1 Nubia: A Success Story

A stellar example of UNESCO’s drive to preserve historical sites while balancing forward progress can be seen in their efforts on behalf of the Nubian monuments in Egypt.

[An] International Campaign was launched in 1960 to relocate and reassemble six groups of monuments in Nubia threatened by the artificial lake that would be created by the Aswan High Dam in the new location. The Campaign lasted twenty years and was completed on 10 March 1980.

A herculean effort spanning twenty years was undertaken to move the monuments further up the slope and out of harm’s way. By doing so, irreplaceable, ancient monuments—dating back 3,000 years—were preserved as cultural icons while society still benefited from the hydropower of the new dam. Other successes can be seen in a series of campaigns including Mohenjo daro (Pakistan), Fes (Morocco), Kathmandu (Nepal), Borobudur (Indonesia) and the Acropolis (Greece).

Critics might question why waste time and money on such an effort; after all, we cannot save all historical artifacts. In the same way that an individual might cherish a grandfather’s old pocket watch (long since functional) or a grandmother’s wedding china, these objects represent more than just physical links to our past. They are spiritual reminders of our connection to a long chain of people and ancestry. When we die and take our place beside them, we join a long chain in the circle of life and death. Seeing ancient places, whether they be pristine habitat or ancient buildings/constructions, we remind ourselves of the fleeting and finite nature of our mortal lives. That thought, in its essence, is the best hope to live peacefully with our fellow humanity: life is short, we must live it well. As the “Good Book” says, “Man is as the grass. He is here one day; the next, thrown into the fire.” Sure, we could remember the Nubian Monuments or the Roman Coliseum in pictures, but to stand in those ancient places and imagine the hands and feet that passed over their old surfaces, is to touch something magical and timeless.

This past March (2020), the fortieth anniversary of the preservation of the Nubian monuments was held to celebrate this shining UNESCO achievement.

5. Controversies

Preservation of history and the battle of hearts and minds is not without its controversies. For some critics, they have valid concerns that current self-designated protectors might be motivated by political agendas that too often stray into the slippery slope of rewriting history or wading into current political controversies that are beyond the purview of mere preservation and education. In addition to questions of “rewriting history,” the particular area of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes to mind. It is the risk and temptation of any person looking back through history to color that “lens” without fully understanding the limitations at the historical time. Currently, the U.S. is navigating this difficult terrain in its current debate regarding “cancel culture” and the founding of their own country.

5.1 An Analysis of Aims

Questions do arise from a reading of UNESCO’s marketing information. Some issues of diversity, by their very nature, do overlap into the very real pressures of the political arena. In UNESCO’s vision statement published on their website, one reads the following:

UNESCO’s founding vision was born in response to a world war that was marked by racist and anti-Semitic violence. Seventy years on and many liberation struggles later, UNESCO’s mandate is as relevant as ever. Cultural diversity is under attack and new forms of intolerance, rejection of scientific facts and threats to freedom of expression challenge peace and human rights. In response, UNESCO’s duty remains to reaffirm the humanist missions of education, science and culture.

So important and chock-full of relevant observations is this concluding paragraph, that it deserves fuller examination. This closing paragraph begins, “UNESCO’s founding vision was born in response to a world war that was marked by racist and anti-Semitic violence.” UNESCO was built on the ashes of World War II. One very bleak chapter in that world-wide event was the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of six million Jews under the Nazi Third Reich. How significant is it, then, that “anti-Semitic violence” is included in this founding exhortation? As this paper will discuss later, the international pariah status of the modern-day state of Israel, a large part of its founding in direct reaction to the Holocaust, seems rather out-of-place. Granted, this controversy involves the Palestinians and their rival claim to ancient territory and a desire for their own nation, however, UNESCO’s dangerous step into the politics around this seems far afield for an organization founded to change hearts and minds with regards to our common humanity and dignity; the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no mere “non-meeting of the minds.”

The second sentence states: “Seventy years on and many liberation struggles later, UNESCO’s mandate is as relevant as ever.” This is not a controversial topic as the heart of humanity is timeless and ever-prone to oppression and violence.

Continuing, “Cultural diversity is under attack and new forms of intolerance, rejection of scientific facts and threats to freedom of expression challenge peace and human rights.” This is a potentially loaded sentence as the premise is clear but lacks supporting evidence to specifically make its case. Without specific definitions, the reader is uncertain as to what “cultural diversity” and “threats to freedom” entail. This is certainly not to quibble that there are events such as these occurring but this sentence in a founding document leaves it to present-day interpreters to define what those events are and, hence, risk alienating supporters. (For example, the suppression of journalists is a worthy issue to tackle but how then does UNESCO view the situation of a Robert Snowden releasing classified governmental information?) When it comes to supporting the preservation of national monuments like the Grand Canyon, it is merely the question of value versus cost. For larger questions, like the naming of archeological sites in modern day Israel (as we will see later), much depends on your particular point of view if cultural diversity is “under attack,” attack being a very strong word.

Our last sentence to close this concluding paragraph reads as follows: “In response, UNESCO’s duty remains to reaffirm the humanist missions of education, science and culture.” This writer can see why criticisms that the UN and its member organizations are seen as fodder to question more conservative views. The word humanist denotes a strong secular bent which is included even though it did not need to be. It would appear that this strong word has been retained to denote that UNESCO will not be swayed by religious counters, but gets tricky when certain sites are religious in nature. The question of authority now comes into play: why and how should an admittedly secular, humanist organization be the final arbiter for religious sites, especially given the specific use of “anti-Semitic” not three sentences ago. Why not eliminate the word “humanist” and leave it as “reaffirm missions of education, science and culture.” 

Indeed, this is a strange concluding paragraph. The danger here is that it is open to too much interpretation and might be counter-productive in terms of galvanizing support across the spectrum. This writer is reminded of single-purpose organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous who make it clear in their bylaws that they will not engage any outside issue that distracts from their one clear purpose: the alcoholic who suffers. Any other issue—no matter how important—remains outside their purview. This writer is also reminded by way of contrast of the fall-out within the Susan B. Komen Organization, a breast cancer foundation, that alienated many of its supporters when a senior vice-president created a political crisis over its non-support of Planned Parenthood. Good or ill, prior to this, the organization, which was founded to directly engage in cancer research, had broad support all across the political spectrum. Many questioned the organization’s straying into the delicate issue of abortion versus reproductive rights when the organization was solely focused on breast cancer research with already broad support. Likewise, why should UNESCO bother with subtle political posturing when the issues of education, science and culture are their main aims.

5.2 The Palestinian-Israeli Kerfuffle

Referenced above, the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli political issue has had long-term consequences for UNESCO in terms of support, both financial and otherwise. In 2011, it was UNESCO, and not the UN General Assembly, that voted to admit Palestine as a non-member observer even though it is not an officially recognized country. Because of this, “Palestine” and its supporters used a “back door” for Palestine to gain entrance into the larger UN since membership here entitles it to membership across the board. An article in The Telegraph reports:

For Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, the result represented a significant symbolic victory in the controversial quest for statehood. But in accepting his application during an emotional vote at its headquarters in Paris, UNESCO will pay a heavy price. Washington provides the body with nearly £50 million in annual funding, nearly 22 per cent of its budget. The State Department said that a £43 million payment due to be made this month will now be withheld. … Under a US law, adopted in 1990 to prevent just such an outcome, funding to any UN body that accepts a non-state entity as a member immediately stands forfeit.

A Reuters world news report of November 8, 2013, states:

The Palestinians have so far failed in their bid to become a full member of the U.N., but their UNESCO membership is seen as a potential first step towards U.N. recognition of statehood. The United States has characterized UNESCO’s move as a misguided attempt to bypass the two-decade old peace process. Washington says only a resumption of peace talks ending in a treaty with Israel can result in Palestinian statehood.

As things stand right now, Palestine has been granted non-member observer status as of March 11, 2019. Funding nearly 22 percent of its budget (US$240 million), to lose those monies is a significant hit in the pocketbook. Critics of this decision had long wondered about the double-standard whereby Israel is held. It was founded as a legal entity with UN support in 1948, an intense groundswell of emotion as a result of the Holocaust, with UNESCO declaring that anti-Semitism was such a prominent reality, it included the very words in their founding document. Today, the nation of Israel continues to be an international pariah. Given this, one wonders why UNESCO should be engaged in this contentious issue as they did when admitting Palestine as a non-official state as contrasted with Israel which was established via official channels. Here, then, is where UNESCO gets its reputation as a rewriter of history when Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said in 2019:

UNESCO is the body that continually rewrites history, including by erasing the Jewish connection to Jerusalem… it is corrupted and manipulated by Israel’s enemies… we are not going to be a member of an organization that deliberately acts against us.

After 69 years of membership in UNESCO, Israel left the organization in 2019.

5.3 Where Angels Fear to Tread: Taking Sides on a Religious Question

UNESCO found itself on the hot seat when it got involved in naming issues over what has been known as Rachel’s Tomb in what is currently considered Palestinian territory under Israeli control (or occupation, depending on your point of view). As reported in Arutz Sheva, the controversy erupted when UNESCO granted the official naming of the site as a mosque, not as Rachel’s Tomb—a matriarch in both Judaism and Islam—which had been the case for as long as 1,700 years. The mosque designation is far more recent and hopes to plant Islam as the dominant religion at the site.

Rachel’s Tomb, located less than a kilometer south of the Jerusalem municipal border, has been recognized for more than 1,700 years as the tomb of Matriarch Rachel. Only ten years ago, some Muslims began calling it the “Bilal ibn Rabah mosque” as well. However, no Muslims have been known to pray there throughout the 43 years of Israeli control of the site.

It is hard not to dispute a particular “slant” to call a site that has been holy to both world religions as suddenly being called a mosque over the concerns of the other party. Regardless, one scratches their head in wonder that UNESCO did not know the risks in doing so. If one smokes in one’s bed, should one wonder how it caught fire?

“The attempt to detach the Nation of Israel from its heritage is absurd,” a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office asserts, in response to the UNESCO decision to recognize Rachel’s Tomb as a mosque and criticize Israel’s inclusion of the Machpelah Cave as a “national heritage site.”

“If the nearly 4,000-year-old burial sites of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish Nation – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – are not part of its culture and tradition, then what is a national cultural site?” the statement asked rhetorically.

One would hope that given the very large political issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine question, UNESCO could have handled this better. It is hard not to argue a perceived blatant bias against Israel in this particular question, especially coming from a secular organization which might aim for the broadest label to promote world peace.

5.4 Other Controversies (or Not)

Other controversies in brief include UNESCO’s decision to include “The Life and Works of Ernesto Ché Guevara” among 54 new additions to the Memory of the World Register, certainly a curious choice given Ché’s revolutionary tactics, including bragging about regular executions of perceived enemies. Another controversy concerned UNESCO support of a Palestinian youth magazine that praised Adolf Hitler, however, they ended up pulling financial support. Three years ago, Japan withheld their annual dues to UNESCO over its decision, at China’s request, to include the Nanjing Massacre in the UN’s Memory of the World list. It would appear that certain requests will always prompt uncomfortable retaliations from other countries if certain inclusions in UNESCO are added as a means of petty infighting, as if any country does not have unsavory, unflattering, even unfortunate events.

Overall, the larger politics regarding Palestine and Israel aside, despite some odd and curious choices which might well reflect certain individuals within UNESCO, the few and rare instances of controversies seem fairly rare and benign. As in the Ché inclusion, which is odd prima facie, it is easy to dismiss its seriousness with a shrug unlike the bald-face praise for Hitler from a magazine which UNESCO consequently cut financial ties; it certainly does not seem fair that UNESCO should have seen that prior to its release as it does not run the magazine.

It is impossible for any organization to satisfy all members all the time and UNESCO is no exception.  However, on the whole, UNESCO has walked the fine line and done a more than decent job.

6. UNESCO’s soft power: Conclusions

The organization does a quality job in its prime missions, from promoting education around the world, particularly that of woman; the collective sharing of information and knowledge in both the natural and social/human science arenas; the widespread advancement of art and history in its continued exploration of world heritage sites that esteem cultural and natural importance, hopefully to be joined by a new list that will include artifacts and paintings; and, finally, protections for independent media and press freedom. It is hard to find an area or issue that someone could not support. This limited paper did not even touch on UNESCO’s great results in education and health care around the globe.

Moving forward, it seems the greatest challenge for UNESCO is one of public relations and marketing. In short, how can UNESCO further advance its interests by continuing to highlight what it does well and what it has done well on behalf of countries across the globe. For this writer, learning more about the important work that UNESCO does was a continual discovery of delight and surprise; why does not UNESCO get more credit? How does UNESCO remove itself from out of the larger shadow of the UN General Assembly that is more about empty posturing and grandiose speeches than actual results?

Its promotional video celebrates what UNESCO does well. Against a backdrop of images from around the globe, UNESCO proudly voices what it is does:

The world needs more education, sciences and culture to find sustainable solutions to the challenges of today. To build peace, combat climate change, and extreme poverty, we must focus on innovation, creativity, and new ideas. We need to share knowledge so as to move forward. Everyday UNESCO supports and trains researchers, teachers, journalists and artists, to inform, educate, open our minds, and foster respect. Since 1945, UNESCO has acted as a laboratory of ideas, imagining tomorrow’s world, building peace in the hearts and minds of men and women.

Look at the words that leap out from this introduction: education, solutions, peace, innovation, creativity, new ideas, laboratory of ideas. Returning to the founding vision, molded while the world was still smoldering from the devastating reality of world war, resulting in the deaths of more than 60 million people worldwide: a bold attempt to change hearts by an appreciation of our common humanity, sewn into the ashes of destruction is high ambition and worthy of praise. It seeks to train some 70 million teachers, educate millions of young people and adults (most of them women) and support some 100,000 schools. The continued mission to protect World Heritage Sites is a testament to goodwill and cultural preservation as an effective way to use “Soft Power” to promote world peace.

Standing in some of these places, or swimming (as in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s coast), this writer had no idea he was participating in the very active promotion of UNESCO. Moving forward, this type of Soft Diplomacy needs to be front and center, and actively supported by all countries because, truly, what other option do we have except sticks and stones?


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Table of Contents


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