By Ryan Kehmna
Have you ever hiked the Grand Canyon? Or visited the Great Wall of China? Or 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 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site.
But that is not all they do. Keep reading to learn more about this UN agency.
Lead Global Education Efforts During COVID-19
As the agency’s name suggests, a large portion of UNESCO’s mandate is to promote quality education through programming and guidance.
These efforts proved critical since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread school closures that resulted. UNESCO established a task force to disseminate technical assistance and information on best practices to governments working to provide education to students that are out of school. More recently, UNESCO has disseminated guidance to countries on effective practices for keeping schools open, as well as ways to help students that have fallen behind during the pandemic, including how to identify at-risk students and concrete steps to promote learning recovery.
Promote Respect for Human Rights Through Holocaust Education
UNESCO is leading Holocaust education and genocide prevention efforts globally.
Since 2007, the organization has been working to develop educational materials and run training seminars for teachers to help impart the lessons of the Holocaust to schoolchildren around the world and counter rising antisemitism. In 2022, as part of annual commemorations tied to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, UNESCO organized a number of events, including a commemoration ceremony and panel discussion on Jewish artists who were killed in the Holocaust. UNESCO has also launched a campaign, called “Protect the Facts”, which seeks to raise public awareness in order to combat Holocaust denial.
Protect Cultural Heritage Worldwide
The organization works in myriad ways to protect cultural heritage sites around the world, a particularly critical issue given the fact that extremists have sought to destroy treasured archeological sites and sell items of cultural value on the black market. In 2015 and 2016, for example, the organization supported efforts by the Malian government to reconstruct and restore 14 mausoleums—the oldest of which dated back to the 13th century—which had been destroyed by extremist Islamist groups who had occupied Timbuktu in 2012. Outside of the Sahel region, UNESCO has also been front and center in efforts to rebuild heritage sites in Mosul, Iraq much of which were destroyed in fighting between ISIS and Iraqi and Western coalition forces.
UNESCO’s World Heritage program is also beneficial to the U.S. Currently, dozens of sites around the country are jockeying for World Heritage designation. One of the reasons for this is the economic benefits that can accrue from such designation. In fact, past studies have shown in some places an overall economic impact of $100 million, with 1,000 new jobs, and bringing in an additional $2 million in hotel tax revenue. But the current prohibition on the U.S. paying dues to UNESCO has created considerable uncertainty about our country’s ability to continue to make World Heritage nominations.
UNESCO plays an important role in the world that firmly aligns with many of our nation’s core values. However, the failure to re-engage and restore funding for the organization will continue to cripple its important work. Until the U.S. becomes a full-paying member of the organization again, UNESCO’s pursuit of human rights and democracy, press freedom, cultural heritage, and education for all – goals manifestly in U.S. interest – will be severely weakened.