Joseph A. Harriss's recent article ("The United Nations' Rogue Agency," TAS, February 2012) expresses appropriate concern about certain recent events at UNESCO. At the same time, the piece mischaracterizes events that are portrayed as stains on the organization when they were actually triumphs for UNESCO—and U.S. interests.
For example, Harriss alleges that the election pitting Mubarak's corrupt henchman Farouk Hosni against other candidates was a black mark on UNESCO's reputation. On the contrary, due to intense and vigorous pressure by the United States, Hosni was defeated and instead the organization elected Irina Bokova, who in my view has been a superb Director General. Without U.S. active membership in UNESCO, this would not have happened.
Similarly, the controversy over Iranian sponsorship of World Philosophy Day ended in a U.S. victory and Iranian defeat. Director General Bokova played a statesmanlike leadership role during this crisis, making a clear decision to cancel the plan to hold World Philosophy Day in Tehran. Without U.S. active membership in UNESCO, this would not have happened.
Third, the piece makes the classic mistake of conflating the organization with its Member States. This is the world. The United Nations and organizations like UNESCO reflect the full spectrum of its membership—democracies, dictatorships, failed states, emerging powers. We can either be engaged and active in fighting for our values and interests, or we can find a seat on the bench while other players dictate the game.
UNESCO's conduct and constitution are profoundly influenced by the United States. Its mandate to promote education, science, and culture to advance universal respect for justice, rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms reflects American values. Our active engagement is absolutely critical to ensuring that the organization stays on track.
Mr. Harriss also gets it wrong when he suggests that UNESCO doesn't do anything to fight discrimination against women except to "preach the good word." To cite just a few examples, UNESCO is on the front lines in Egypt and Tunisia, educating women about their rights and supporting their participation in political processes. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNESCO works to prevent violence against women through school and community-level programs. These programs help create stable, democratic societies that are more resistant to extremism and violence.
Of course, Harriss is right to be outraged about Syria's reappointment to the UNESCO committee that deals with human rights. But the story isn't finished. In early February, thirty countries from around the world, including the United States, requested that UNESCO's Executive Board review the issue when it meets in late February/early March. With active U.S. engagement, respect for human rights and dignity may triumph once again.
If we follow the author's advice to withdraw, we would be unable to pursue the Syrian issue and many others fundamental to our interests at UNESCO. American leadership is crucial at UNESCO and this is true now more than ever. Without it, UNESCO—an organization that has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support—could very well become a "rogue agency."
AMBASSADOR DAVID T. KILLION
U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO
If only UNESCO could embalm the brain of Joseph A. Harriss. It contains a perfect example of cold war mentality from around the time of the Cuban missile crisis—definitely a cultural artifact worth preserving. Harriss is so busy looking for communists and defending U.S. global hegemony that he can't see the modern UNESCO. We are the UN agency that:
- Teaches police in Afghanistan how to read and write;
- Leads global research in Tsunami warning systems;
- Ensures that the Holocaust is never forgotten; and
- Spearheads Education for All, the movement for universal schooling.
And yes, we're the first UN agency to admit Palestine. What Harriss misses is that—put to the vote—every UN agency would make the same decision, except for the General Assembly in New York where the U.S. has a veto through the Security Council. At UNESCO, he blames this new global reality on the "aggressive Arab-African regional bloc" and comes dangerously close to racism when he talks of "grinning, gibbering, gesticulating inmates" "taking over the asylum." Does he always have such an extreme reaction when a vote goes against him? I'm surprised The American Spectator agreed to print such bigoted, undemocratic cant.
But never mind. No one's perfect, certainly not UNESCO. We're in the middle of reforming our business processes and management systems so that the excesses Harriss so exhaustively describes can never happen again.
Actually, there's a lot that someone with his perspective should be cheerful about. The old UNESCO tried to stifle media through the New World Information and Communication Order. The new UNESCO defends media freedom by protesting every time a journalist is killed in the line of duty. Isn't that what was supposed to happen when America won the cold war?
NEIL FORD, DIRECTOR
Division of Public Information, UNESCO
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