A programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on September 26th under the title “UNESCO: 70 Years of Peacekeeping” purported to explore that UN agency’s role in promoting peace.
“The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and Syria has been condemned as a war crime by UNESCO – the ‘intellectual’ agency of the United Nations. But aside from issuing statements, what can this organisation achieve?
Culture writer Charlotte Higgins explores the UN’s peacekeeping agency, established 70 years ago to build peace through education, science and culture. Its founders knew that a safer world could not be engineered through economics or politics alone. With optimism and purpose, they called on countries to pull together to inspire hearts and minds.
Today, UNESCO is best known for World Heritage, which promotes a sense of collective identity. Yet with attacks on ancient sites now at the frontline of conflicts, UNESCO’s soft power is in the spotlight.
“I know that we don’t have an army, we cannot deploy troops,” says Director General Irina Bokova, “I wish we could have a stronger way of doing something.”
Charlotte navigates UNESCO HQ in Paris, a modernist expression of post war ambition. Here, members of staff can recite the ringing first sentence of UNESCO’s constitution by heart: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” Even so, UNESCO struggles to keep its 195 member states around the table, most notably with the United States – the biggest contributor to the budget – withholding payment since Palestine joined. As the geopolitical situation mutates and fragments, Charlotte asks whether the intellectual peacekeepers can keep up.”
The topic of the US withholding of funds to UNESCO is addressed at 23:39:
Higgins: “In recent years, however, the US has stopped paying its bill but UNESCO doesn’t want to lose its presence at the table.”
Interviewee: “In US law, if any UN body allows Palestine as a member state, it doesn’t leave that organization but there’s an automatic cut. So in November 2011 when UNESCO allows Palestine as a member, the US cuts off its dues, which is almost one quarter of UNESCO’s budget.”
That description omits a relevant aspect of the US legislation which was reported by the BBC itself at the time:
“A US law passed in the 1990s bars giving funding to any UN body that admits the Palestinians as full members before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached.” [emphasis added]
UNESCO’s ‘rebranding’ of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron as ‘Palestinian’ sites (along with other attempts to politicise cultural and religious sites in the region and erase Jewish heritage) is clearly an example of the way in which political pressures undermine that UN body’s founding constitution.
Despite the BBC being supposedly committed to enhancing audience understanding of international issues, that aspect of UNESCO’s record is completely absent from this programme.