UNESCO: Who's the Rogue? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
UNESCO: Who’s the Rogue?

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.”

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?

Division of Public Information, UNESCO

Joseph A. Harriss replies:

I was delighted when the editors told me they had received letters reacting to my article on UNESCO. I expected that they would be the sort of serious, constructive discussion of the organization’s problems and what to do about them that the article was intended to stimulate. They did, after all, come from Mr. Neil Ford, UNESCO’s director of public information, and Ambassador David Killion of the U.S. Mission to UNESCO. Imagine then my disappointment on discovering that the official response from UNESCO, as formulated by Mr. Ford, contained only spiteful vociferation and personal attacks.

First, to answer Mr. Ford: After a brief flash of wit concerning the desirability of embalming my brain, he launches into a snide tirade, beginning with preposterously trying to paint me as a commie hunter of the old Cold War school. He also says I cannot see the modern UNESCO. On the contrary, his reaction indicates that I have seen today’s UNESCO only too well. More to the point, a close reading of the article will show that there is no “looking for communists” or “defending U.S. global hegemony,” though clearly Mr. Ford, in keeping with the prevailing UNESCO attitude toward America, certainly does not favor the latter. It is distressing that the UNESCO director of public information, surely an intelligent, articulate gentleman as one would expect, resorts to a cheap ad hominem attack. Indeed, his whole missive is devoted to assailing the author, rather than responding concretely to the facts and issues mentioned in the article. He might usefully even have pointed out errors, if any.

His statement that every UN agency would also have admitted Palestine is a spectacularly unsupported allegation. If he has any, Mr. Ford would do better to give us his empirical evidence for that assertion. That would have gone far to refute, if possible, the point that the Palestinian Authority chose UNESCO, not some other agency, because they knew it was the weak link in the UN system.

He refers to the Arab-African bloc being a “new global reality.” This does indeed reflect the official UNESCO line and its day-to-day reality on the ground. But what concerns me is that he comes dangerously close to calling me a racist, the lowest of low blows, to which I do not take kindly. But in all due Christian charity, I forgive him. I understand that, in the absence of seriously contesting points I raise, and being unable to express himself with the sort of verbal elegance one might expect of a high UNESCO official representing what claims to be the world’s premier cultural organization, he has no choice but to fall back on guttersnipe rhetoric.

He asks, oddly, whether I always have such an extreme reaction when a vote goes against me. While I am flattered that UNESCO might have been voting for or against me personally, the vote actually had nothing to do with me. It was against the member states that considered UNESCO was not the proper forum for deciding the question of Palestinian statehood. Besides the United States, these included such considerable nations as Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Sweden, among others. Your argument about the vote is with them, Mr. Ford, not with me. I am only the messenger of the bad news.

When he refers to an ongoing reform of the “excesses” I describe, I can only accept and applaud Mr. Ford’s candid admission that 1) my article was indeed exhaustively researched, and 2) that these “excesses” need to be corrected. QED.

As to America’s winning the Cold War, I fail to see the connection between that and the fact that UNESCO has again become dysfunctional due to the political and, occasionally, economic corruption made clear in my article. More likely, such incoherence is simply another example of Mr. Ford’s regrettably angry reaction due, no doubt to a sensitive nerve having been touched. Perhaps he would like to cool down and make a positive contribution to a discussion about what can be done to reform that organization? Just a thought. But the present reality is that such reform, as in the 1980s and ’90s, will probably be possible only as a result of the salutary shock of America’s complete withdrawal.

As to Ambassador David Killion’s contribution, I salute his sincere engagement in his task, as do many other ambassadors to UNESCO I interviewed. The problem is that he understandably—and, I am sure, sincerely—wants to portray these setbacks as victories. My research makes it necessary that I disagree, as my article demonstrates.

His contention that the defeat of Farouk Hosny as director general was a triumph is unconvincing. At best, this is barely snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But, while the U.S. Mission’s role here was indeed exemplary, that is not the point, which is that Hosny’s very candidature and near victory demonstrates the systemic failure of the organization.

Ditto the embarrassing mess over World Philosophy Day in Iran. The question is not whether the U.S. and other member states were able at the last moment to change that incredibly stupid decision, but why on earth UNESCO decided to hold it in Iran in the first place. Systemic, self-perpetuating failure is the answer.

Ambassador Killion argues, as anyone in his position must, that engagement in such an organization is the only way to influence it. The unfortunate reality is that most of the time, it’s a losing game for the U.S., as the vote on Palestine admission and the corruption of the World Heritage Convention decisively demonstrate.

His argument that UNESCO has programs that promote democracy fails to pass the test of results. UNESCO, as I have pointed out in the article, has many high-flown programs with impressive names, and indeed programs within programs. The problem, as the thoroughgoing British evaluation last year says, is showing convincing results. I see very few, as do the British.

Yes, there is the promise to review the disastrous decision to include Syria on the committee that treats human rights. Nice try again, Ambassador, but Syria’s appointment to that committee would never have happened if UNESCO were not dysfunctional. The whole episode illustrates its systemic failure.

Lastly, Ambassador Killion argues with some heat the need of American participation and engagement to keep UNESCO from becoming a rogue agency. Dear Ambassador, it is already a rogue agency, as anyone who reads my article can see. The U.S. can do nothing useful about that except to make the ultimate protest of withdrawing. History shows that only that will concentrate UNESCO’s collective mind on the root and branch reform that could make it, once again, a worthwhile enterprise worthy of American support.

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