The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was thrown into the spotlight when its executive board recommended that its general conference, which opens on Tuesday in Paris, admit Palestine. This decision may lead to UNESCO losing U.S. funding because of the terms of U.S. law. But more is at stake here than budgetary issues. This is about UNESCO’s role in promoting shared, global interests.
UNESCO supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. We are bolstering the literacy of the Afghan National Police and are leading the country’s largest education program, reaching some 600,000 learners in 18 provinces. We work with the United States to advance democratic freedoms. Mandated to promote freedom of expression, UNESCO stands up for every journalist attacked or killed across the world. In Tunisia and Egypt, we are leading education reform and training journalists. We target the causes of violent extremism by training teachers in human rights and Holocaust remembrance.
Major U.S. private-sector companies are key partners. We work with Procter and Gamble on girls’ education in Senegal and with the Packard Foundation to reduce girls’ dropout rates in Tanzania and Ethiopia.
The issue of Palestinian membership should not be allowed to derail these initiatives, which go far beyond the politics of the Middle East. The UNESCO-U.S. relationship is so intertwined that I cannot imagine the United States disengaging. Can we imagine UNESCO’s World Heritage program without the contribution of such universal landmarks as Yellowstone National Park? Can the United States really withdraw from UNESCO’s work on tsunami early warning in the Caribbean and the Pacific? None of this is in the interest of UNESCO. Nor do I believe it is in the interest of Americans.
Irina Bokova, Paris
The writer is director-general of UNESCO.