The Trump Administration’s war on science has intensified with the announcement that the US is withdrawing from UNESCO, the international organization that works to promote peace & security through international cooperation on education, science and cultural programs.
Founded in 1945, when nations were seeking ways to rebuild educational systems and cultural connections in the immediate aftermath of World War II, UNESCO today is a leading multi-lateral organization working on a range of issues crucial for achieving peace, equity and sustainability world-wide.
“Every day, countless Americans and American communities pour their time and their hearts into UNESCO-led international collaborations on science, on education and on culture” says Andrew Potts who practices cultural heritage law at Nixon Peabody LLP. They work on preventing violent extremism via youth education, on literacy and educating women and girls, on science for development, and on free speech and journalist safety. And of course, they fight for cultural diversity and heritage through UNESCO projects like the World Heritage program, biosphere reserves and the Creative Cities initiative.
UNESCO recognition benefits US communities
UNESCO recognition and connections can bring economic benefits to US communities. For example, according to a State Department news bulletin from August 2017, Tucson, Arizona, which was listed as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2015, has experienced an increase in tourism and restaurant revenues as a direct result, as well as millions of dollars of earned media coverage.
The US withdrawal announcement on October 12th came smack in the middle of Iowa City’s eight-day UNESCO City of Literature Book Festival. It also came right on the heels of San Antonio, Texas’ second World Heritage Festival, a new annual event that already attracts thousands of visitors to celebrate and learn about the San Antonio missions – including the Alamo – that were added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2015.
Although US World Heritage sites won’t lose their status when the US leaves UNESCO, there will likely be little or no federal support for collaboration and engagement with the international agency or its staff.
Relationship status: It’s complicated
The US has a complicated history with UNESCO. It helped to found the organization and has always been actively engaged, but it has also withdrawn once before.
At the height of the cold war in 1984, Ronald Reagan pulled the US out. At that time, a report on the implications for US science published by the National Research Council identified disruptions to international scientific collaborations, reduced confidence in US scientific leadership and forfeiture of the right to participate in governance of UNESCO-led scientific initiatives.
The US ultimately continued to provide an equivalent level of international financial support for science, culture and education, but the impacts of withdrawal were significant in the scientific community.
George W. Bush took the US back into UNESCO nearly 20 years later in 2002, and then in 2011, the Obama administration drastically cut back on financial support to UNESCO in response to Palestine being granted full membership.
The process for withdrawal takes some time, and the US will not formally cease to be a member of UNESCO until December 31st, 2018. The State Department has said the US remains committed to UNESCO’s important work and will seek observer status.
Secretary Tillerson could put action behind that talk by committing to put the equivalent of the US’s former UNESCO dues payments into other international collaborations in science, education and culture.
“Wars begin in the minds of men”
Meanwhile, it is the words of the American poet Archibald MacLeish that are enshrined in UNESCO’s constitution and etched in 10 languages on the Tolerance Square wall at the organization’s headquarters in Paris: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
According to outgoing UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “[that] vision has never been more relevant” than it is today. In a moving and very personal statement in response to the news of the US withdrawal, Bokova said,
At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.
Under Bokova’s leadership, with major involvement from the US, UNESCO has been at the forefront of efforts to protect heritage sites and museum collections in Iraq and Syria as ISIS forces have tried to destroy monuments and stamp out culture.
She has also spearheaded implementation of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, in a world where journalists’ freedom to work and safety is constantly under threat.
Through its Science for Sustainable Development program which many US universities participate in, UNESCO has launched important initiatives to increase the number of women in science, to ensure science is at the heart of policy-making for sustainable development, to fully value Traditional Ecological Knowledge and to champion open access to scientific information.
Protecting World Heritage
It is probably for its work on World Heritage that UNESCO is best known to most Americans. The World Heritage Convention was set up to help protect for future generations, natural and cultural heritage deemed to be of universal value for humankind.
There are 23 World Heritage sites in the US, amongst them, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Yellowstone, Yosemite and Mesa Verde national parks. Many of America’s World Heritage sites and cultural sites are at risk from climate change impacts including worsening wildfires, more intense storms, sea level rise and coastal flooding.
The National Park Service, which is a global leader in researching and responding to the effects of climate change on protected areas, has historically been a major player in the World Heritage Convention under UNESCO’s leadership.
Indeed, just as the US is planning to withdraw from UNESCO, the international World Heritage Committee is preparing a major effort to step up its engagement with the implementation of the Paris Agreement (a global commitment to act to reduce global warming emissions to address climate change), and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and to update its policy on climate change for the first time in a decade.
UCS will be fully engaged in that process, building on the policy recommendations in our report on climate and world heritage, published with UNESCO and UNEP in 2016.
The Trump administration, however, is relegating federal scientists, experts and agencies to bystander status with one more pointlessly anti-science jab at the international community. In response Potts says,
Now more than ever, as with the Paris Agreement, it will be incumbent on US cities, universities and NGOs to pick up the reins of global education, science and cultural collaboration; to continue to make American contributions to all these critical endeavors and to make sure American communities benefit from their progress.