By Kelli Meyer
The United Nations system is comprised of the UN, which is headquartered in New York, and more than 30 affiliated organizations—known as programs, funds, and specialized agencies—with their own membership, leadership, and budget processes.
In a new series, we’re taking a look at the UN entities that might not always make headlines but play an integral part of the UN’s mission to promote global peace and prosperity.
Next on the agenda: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Have you ever gone hiking in the Grand Canyon? Or visited the Great Wall of China? What about strolled in the Old City of Dubrovnik?
You might be wondering what these landmarks have in common given their diverse geography. Spoiler alert: Each has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
Originally born in response to World War II and anti-Semitic rhetoric, UNESCO is a UN specialized agency that works to build peace and foster international cooperation through initiatives in education, science and culture.
One of the agency’s most well-known activities is the designation of World Heritage sites like the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall, “to recognize and protect sites that are outstanding demonstrations of human coexistence with the land as well as human interactions, cultural coexistence, spirituality and creative expression.”
Many of these cultural and natural landmarks are on U.S. soil. In fact, there are currently 23 designated UNESCO Heritage Sites here in the states, which bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue to local economies and result in thousands of jobs. But beyond the tourism and economic benefits, these sites also represent a key opportunity to safeguard cultural heritage for future generations, both in the U.S. and abroad.
In addition to its work with World Heritage Sites, UNESCO puts into practice actions that advance U.S. national security interests and complement U.S. military efforts to bring stability and democracy to volatile regions and counter the rise of terror groups.
For example, in Afghanistan, UNESCO has worked to improve literacy among members of the police force through its Literacy Empowerment for Afghanistan Police (LEAP) program. LEAP aims create an educated and trained workforce with the goal that the Afghanistan National Police will accomplish its mission and ensure its sustainability and credibility over time. UNESCO’s work falls right in line with U.S. priorities given our significant military and economic investments in the country.
In Iraq and Syria, the organization has been on the front lines of stopping ISIS’ sale of antiquities, which help fund their illicit activities. UNESCO has also worked to combat the spread of ISIS in the region through education programs. As the terror group seeks to expand its influence, UNESCO is a key partner to U.S. efforts.
In addition, UNESCO is leading Holocaust education and genocide prevention efforts globally. Last year the organization launched the first-ever guide on the subject designed to be a resource for policy-makers, teachers and others to engage in or reinforce education about the Holocaust and the prevention of genocide. In 2017, there was a 57% increase from the previous year in harassment, threats, and vandalism cases targeting Jews in the U.S. Given this startling change, UNESCO’s work in this area is incredibly timely.
UNESCO’s mandate is as relevant as ever, especially to Americans. We are seeing a resurgence of intolerance (Charlottesville), rejection of scientific facts (pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement) and threats to freedom of expression (#FakeNews) that challenge peace and human rights in the U.S. and are an affront to our cultural diversity.
Which is what makes Congress and Trump Administration’s unwillingness to reengage with UNESCO and restore funding so disheartening. Until the U.S. becomes a full-paying member of the organization again, UNESCO’s pursuit of human rights and democracy, press freedom, and education for all – goals manifestly in U.S. interest – will be severely weakened.
To learn more about UNESCO, click here.