Five Reasons for the United States To Care About UNESCO

Posted by Sheba Crocker
October 17, 2015
A view of the Headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in Paris, France

On October 18, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Paris to participate in an event highlighting U.S. commitment to UNESCO and the U.S. candidacy for the UNESCO Executive Board.  Here are a few reasons that the United States intends to remain actively engaged with that organization.  

1) We were there at the beginning.  In the wake of World War II, the United States led the effort to establish the United Nations. That effort was designed to create space for the nations of the world to work together rather than return to the pattern of division, dispute, and conflict. Among the UN’s first recommendations was the creation of an organization to foster intellectual collaboration as a means of building bridges between peoples and promoting peace through thematic interaction.  The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was created in 1945, and had its first meetings in 1946, featuring a large U.S. delegation. Among those delegates was famed American author and diplomat Archibald MacLeish, who wrote the preamble to UNESCO’s constitution, including its most famous element: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."

2) UNESCO works in the real world.  Today’s global issues require international tools that are capable, credible, and engaged. Consider UNESCO in that context. It is intensively engaged in efforts to protect cultural heritage in places like Syria, where ISIL has targeted treasures such as Palmyra in its campaign of destruction. It is a vigorous advocate for global press freedom, training reporters, supporting the enactment of freedom of information laws, and condemning attacks on journalists.  It facilitates a global dialogue on racism and other forms of discrimination. It promotes educational opportunities for women and girls, and assists countries in improving gender equality in textbooks and classrooms. It facilitates scientific interaction on a host of geographic sciences, on oceans, on climate, on sustainable development, and more. The United States is among the beneficiaries of this varied work, including through the World Heritage Program, which has identified nearly two dozen American natural and cultural sites - from Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon to Independence Hall and the San Antonio Missions - for inscription on the World Heritage List. That list reveals the breadth of UNESCO’s impact, currently featuring more than 1,000 sites in 163 countries.   

3) UNESCO embraces innovationAs the world begins to contemplate implementation of the recently agreed Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, UNESCO will be an indispensable partner.  UNESCO is among a handful of international organizations quick to recognize the possibilities available by unlocking public-private partnerships, and the United States is at the forefront of catalyzing these alliances, particularly in areas such as literacy, teacher-training, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programs to benefit more woman and girls, mobile learning, and Open Educational Resources.

4) The United States has value to add.  The United States is an active and influential member of UNESCO, and shares with the UNESCO community its unique capacities and expertise. In recent years, that collaboration has yielded new action on important fronts. For example, in 2012 the United States, Brazil, and UNESCO partnered to create “Teaching Respect for All” - an educational curriculum designed to combat racism and promote tolerance.  In 2014, the United States and UNESCO partnered with the International Council on Museums (ICOM), INTERPOL, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to promote urgent action to stem illicit trafficking of antiquities. During UNESCO’s upcoming General Conference (November), the United States will host a high-level side event on Education to Prevent and Counter Violent Extremism.  And the United States brings a deep bench of scientific expertise to UNESCO activities, including, for example, close coordination with member states and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission on efforts to strengthen the Pacific Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System.  Across the full range of UNESCO’s mandate, the United States contributes essential leadership, know-how, and determination. 

5) We are partners for the future. The United States is a global leader on many of the issues that are central to UNESCO’s mission, and it often exercises that leadership through UNESCO and other international organizations.  For example, as the global community works toward a comprehensive agreement for climate action, we anticipate the need to employ UNESCO’s critical science mandate to support the emerging global consensus.  This mandate, which includes scientific engagement on freshwater and ocean management, biodiversity, disaster risk reduction and preparedness, etc., provides a crucial linkage between international aspirations and on-the-ground achievements.

About the Author: Sheba Crocker is Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. Follow her at @State_IO on Twitter.

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