In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United Nations established the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. Its goal was to foster world peace through education and through cultural and scientific cooperation. Today, UNESCO is best known for putting its stamp on world heritage sites such as the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis in Athens, and India’s Taj Mahal.
Unfortunately, like so much at the United Nations, corruption and national interests have made a mockery of UNESCO’s mission. The organization today is used more as a tool to sow division than to advance peace.
In 2016, for example, UNESCO deliberately removed any acknowledgment of Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in a resolution affirming only the Islamic heritage of the shared holy site. To twist history in support of a polemic may win plaudits from rejectionist and anti-Semitic states, but it does nothing to advance peace, education, or cultural cooperation. Such corruption led the United States and Israel to withdraw from UNESCO on Jan. 1, 2019, although U.S. President Joe Biden appears ready to rejoin the organization.
Undermining a Crucial Mission
Another stain on UNESCO’s mission is the way it distributes goodwill ambassadorships to unsuitable figures with clear conflicts of interest. Such was the case with Mehriban Aliyeva, first lady of Azerbaijan, whose only qualification appears to be her marriage to Azerbaijan’s dictator. In effect, UNESCO laundered Azerbaijan’s reputation right around the time when Azerbaijani forces destroyed the Julfa Cemetery, the world’s largest collection of intricately carved, centuries-old khachkars. The cultural destruction wrought against Armenian churches and property following the Azerbaijani assault on Nagorno-Karabakh was too much even for UNESCO. As Azerbaijan sandblasted or removed ancient Armenian inscriptions in churches and monasteries in order to promote the fiction that Armenia had no ties to the territory, Aliyeva quietly resigned. At no point did she speak up for the protection of cultural heritage that was not her own. While Aliyeva is gone – UNESCO does not even list her name among former goodwill ambassadors – UNESCO continues to abet division and cultural corruption.
For example, UNESCO maintains a list of intangible cultural heritage. Think baguette bread in France, khanjar daggers in Oman, falconry in many European and Gulf Arab countries, and Mongolia’s Nadaam festival. In its latest round of additions, however, UNESCO has made tea (çay) culture exclusively Azerbaijani and Turkish. That would be news to Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, Syrians, and many others across the region. This is not just an innocent mistake. It plays into Turkey’s efforts to diminish and delegitimize Kurdish culture, and Azerbaijan’s efforts to do likewise with Armenia. It is akin to weighing in on the hummus or falafel wars by arguing that such foods are intrinsically Lebanese or Palestinian and that Israel’s embrace is nothing more than colonial appropriation. (The reality is that the food is just as much part of Mizrahi Jewish heritage as it was their non-Jewish neighbors in Arab lands.)
The world needs to preserve its heritage. UNESCO’s politicization and its willingness to allow dictators and cultural abusers to use its good name to justify cultural erasure and division, however, suggests that the organization might have outlived its worth. It needs new leadership.