With the admission of Palestine, UNESCO shows again it is over-politicized and running out of control. The U.S. should head for the exit.
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But today UNESCO has twisted its meaning to satisfy as many of its client activists as possible. The new slogan of its flagship program is World Heritage and Sustainable Development, thereby pleasing the greens and those who view UNESCO primarily as an economic development, not cultural, agency. (Just for the record, culture properly understood has nothing whatever to do with economic development, as many an impecunious writer can attest.) As Irina Bokova said in a recent speech announcing the upcoming 40th anniversary celebrations of the convention, “Heritage stands at the crossroads of climate change, social transformations and processes of reconciliation between peoples. Heritage carries high stakes—for the identity and belonging of peoples, for the sustainable economic and social development of communities.” Anybody feel left out?
To be sure, with a headquarters staff of 80 running the program, the World Heritage Committee can sometimes help avoid damage to important sites. When in 1995 Egypt planned a new highway near the Giza Pyramids which might have blighted the site, negotiations with the Egyptian government found a solution. And when the archaeological site of Delphi in Greece was threatened by plans for an aluminum plant nearby, the Greek government was persuaded to find another location.
But many observers are increasingly unhappy with the way the World Heritage Committee operates. They accuse it of inappropriate politicization and, ultimately, corruption of its original mandate. This came to light publicly at the general conference last November, when the Estonian ambassador, Marten Kokk, stood up and said aloud what many insiders were thinking. “We regret to say,” he declared, “that the increasing operational problems and politicization of the World Heritage Committee compromise the credibility of the  Convention and the World Heritage List.” He also criticized conflicts of interest on the committee, with members abusing their positions to win selection of candidate sites in their home countries.
Interviews with other delegations made clear what Kokk was concerned about. “Several delegations are unhappy with the way the Committee is selecting sites for its list,” the ambassador of one Nordic country told me. (Delegations I interviewed insisted on anonymity when voicing criticism.) “Too often, the decision is made not on the grounds of a site’s historical or aesthetic value, but for political reasons. As a result, the committee’s choices diverge more and more frequently from the professional advice of the outside experts who make recommendations. This is against the very raison d’être of the 1972 Convention.” A member of a different delegation, who sat on the committee for four years, confirmed this. “It’s clear that, for political reasons, the World Heritage Committee is not complying with the recommendations of the experts in selecting sites,” he said. “There are many obvious cases. We regret this very much.” A recent report by an external auditor confirms the program’s corruption. It notes that in one recent year, six candidate sites that the experts did not find “of outstanding universal value” were selected as heritage sites anyway for political and economic reasons.
MEMBER STATES OBVIOUSLY consider that it is worth doing whatever necessary to get as many World Heritage sites as possible. They mean prestige, jobs, and economic development in the form of increased tourism. Travel agencies tout package tours focused on World Heritage-listed sites, manna from heaven for poor countries. “Is the World Heritage Committee politicized?” asked one disabused Western ambassador I talked with. “Everything at the UN is politicized. Should the committee be overturning the recommendations of the experts? Absolutely not, and we have to put pressure on member states not to do that anymore.” A committee official says that it is now considering the growing criticism and issuing new operational guidelines. “We hope these reforms will correct anomalies,” he says, without explaining how.
Some locations with World Heritage sites are learning that it’s not an unmixed blessing. The German city of Dresden, known for its splendid baroque and rococo architecture, won heritage status in 2004 for its restored city center including palaces, churches, opera houses, and museums. Then in 2006 UNESCO’s culture police frowned on the city fathers’ decision to build a four-lane bridge across the river Elbe, more than a mile away from the historic center. They gravely “delisted” the city in 2009 for refusing to obey orders not to build. The citizens of Dresden now enjoy their new bridge and somehow continue to thrive in one of Germany’s fastest-growing cities.
Latest target of UNESCO intrusion is Liverpool. The English city on the Mersey, home of the Beatles, founded in 1207, was granted World Heritage status in 2004. Alas, a three-day visit by UNESCO inspectors last fall concluded with the warning that it would lose its status unless it made radical changes to the $9 billion Liverpool Waters project to regenerate its northern docklands. The project, a half-mile from the historic center, includes offices, a shopping mall, cruise liner terminal, and other job-creating features. “This project is absolutely vital for the future of the city,” the head of the Liverpool city council, Joe Anderson, told me on the phone. “We have a 29 percent unemployment rate, and this will create jobs both now and for generations to come. Plans dating back 100 years show our forefathers wanted a similar docklands development. And now we have these outsiders trying to tell us how to shape our city.” He still hopes for a compromise, but Liverpudlians will get their new docklands.
The intrusions can get worse. Maladroitly designating a World Heritage site can actually spark warfare, a rather serious unintended consequence for an organization striving for a “culture of peace.” That happened on the Cambodia-Thailand border after the Preah Vihear temple was selected in July 2008 in response to a Cambodian request. This reignited a longstanding border dispute over that area. Within weeks the first Thai and Cambodian soldiers were being killed in firefights, while thousands of civilians fled. The 1,000-year-old temple itself was damaged. The military standoff continues while the International Court of Justice considers the case.
Meanwhile, UNESCO’s boffins recently created a functionary’s dream: a program that is, literally, infinite. If you liked physical, measurable World Heritage, they reasoned, you’ll love the intangible heritage that can exist simply in the minds and habits of certain people. This can mean everything from oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, quaint rituals and festivities, to “knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe.”
There are already 267 intangible heritage items, but, as an expansive program official explains, “There exist in the world thousands, even billions of potential practices that could be on the list. It’s unlimited and infinite. The only limit is our capacity to handle it.” You can bet that will be growing. Meanwhile, recent additions include the Mibu no Hana Taue rice planting ritual in Japan, Mexico’s mariachi music, French cooking and horseback-riding, and Croatia’s Nijemo Kolo, a silent circle dance from the hinterland of Dalmatia. The only really important heritage ritual still missing from the list is the Texas Two-Step, though it does unfortunately involve a man leading a woman.
LESS THAN A DECADE after the U.S. rejoined, UNESCO, with the Palestinian flag now flying at its headquarters, has shown convincingly that it is back to its old political games. Whatever the best intentions of the secretariat, political infighting will always trump good works. Africa, the Middle East, and the emerging nations own it. They may individually contribute 1 percent or less to the budget, but their vote equals America’s. Without weighted voting according to contributions, or some safety valve like the UN’s Security Council, they will stay in the driver’s seat. It is unrealistic to think the U.S. can significantly influence UNESCO’s direction, as the futile campaign to block the admission of Palestine shows.
The organization does have worthwhile programs in literacy, tsunami warning systems, clean water, post-disaster relief, and others. But unlike some other UN agencies that occasionally have quantifiable, visible results, most of UNESCO’s activities are impossible to assess objectively and are oriented to pleasing its activist clients. Moreover, in the absence of any sunset clauses, vested interests can keep asinine or downright undesirable programs, all with overwhelmingly self-important names, running indefinitely.
Britain, far more tough-minded toward ineffective UN agencies than the Obama administration, did its own independent assessment of UNESCO last year. Among other failings, the study found it “is unable to identify its impact. Systematic results reporting and evaluation is not adequately practiced.… UNESCO is under-delivering significantly in its leadership of the education sector.… Long-lasting historic underperformance now means much of UNESCO’s mandate is often done elsewhere.” Without improvement, the UK threatens to cut its funding, as it has already to UN Habitat, the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and the International Labor Organization.
Do useful programs in education and the like require a heavy, inept, expensive international bureaucracy? Or could unilateral foreign aid, along with ad hoc groupings of nations, nongovernmental organizations, and corporate sponsors do the job more efficiently?
The question is rapidly becoming academic for the U.S. By cutting off its funding to UNESCO, America has de facto begun heading for the exit. It is not an option to humiliatingly lose all moral authority there by trying to remain a member without paying our dues. (Internal murmuring against the U.S. on this score has already begun.) Washington policymakers must accept the logic of this situation and either change the laws that created it or declare America’s official withdrawal. Bokova’s December trip to Washington to lobby the Hill changed few minds. Her argument, that U.S. influence abroad will be reduced without its voice at the culture palace on the Seine, pales beside UNESCO’s endemic flaws.
“UNESCO is easy to criticize, even to mock. How could it be otherwise? Here we have an organization which has set out to influence the educational, scientific and cultural activities of the world—no less. Obviously ridiculous and laughable! Yet would it not be more helpful to suspend judgment at least until the facts have been looked at as a whole?” Those words were written in 1951 by a former UNESCO staff member, Britain’s Theodore Besterman, in the first book ever published about the organization. It shows that the UN’s cultural agency, with its ill-defined, infinite utopian mandate, has been open to abuse and invited criticism since the beginning. The difference is that now the facts are in.