A Maker of Books Destroys 100,000

Examples of the 100,000 books that UNESCO destroyed.
Examples of the 100,000 books that UNESCO destroyed. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008

PARIS -- For more than two decades, 250 historians and specialists labored to produce the first six volumes of the General History of Latin America, an exhaustive work financed by UNESCO, the United Nations organization created to preserve global culture and heritage.

Then, over the course of two years, UNESCO paid to destroy many of those books and nearly 100,000 others by turning them to pulp, according to an external audit.

"This is the intellectual organization of the United Nations system," Aziza Bennani, Morocco's ambassador to UNESCO, said in an interview. "How could an employee of UNESCO make a decision to destroy these books?"

Homero Aridjis, Mexico's ambassador, said at the organization's executive council meeting this week, "This is not only a blow to the culture and knowledge of entire populations and nations, it contradicts the mandate entrusted to UNESCO." He demanded an internal investigation.

UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura said it was "completely incomprehensible and inappropriate" that some of the organization's "most important and successful collections" were ordered destroyed, including histories of humanity and Africa, and surveys of ancient monuments.

It was unclear who was responsible, he said. "We have launched an inquiry, consulting publications officers of the period, now retired, in order to discover the reasons which led them to take this decision and not to consider other options," the audit report quotes him as saying.

South African Ambassador Nomasonto Maria Sibanda-Thusi told the executive board: "We believe that some decisive disciplinary action is needed. The main player may have retired, but what about those that knew but chose to remain silent?"

According to the report, the destruction occurred in 2004 and 2005, when UNESCO's overflowing book storage warehouses in Paris were relocated to Brussels. Rather than pay to move 94,500 books, auditors reported, UNESCO officials ordered them destroyed. The books were turned to pulp for recycling, the audit says.

Nino Muñoz Gomez, director of UNESCO's Bureau of Public Information and chief of the publishing division, said that at least half of the destroyed volumes were outdated and contained obsolete statistical data.

The audit notes that some publications were out of date but says others "on historical or purely literary themes (poetry anthologies, stories from all lands in translation) were not at all affected by obsolescence." It says a "solution other than destruction" should have been considered, "such as free distribution to libraries."

Several irate African and Latin American ambassadors said libraries and schools in their impoverished countries would have been eager to receive comprehensive history books.

The auditors found that at least 4,990 copies of the General History of Latin America -- one-quarter of those published -- were destroyed. Records show that pulping of the first six volumes -- which sell for 30.5 euros each, or about $48, at the UNESCO bookstore -- was ordered even as historians and authors were working on the final three volumes of the nine-book set.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company