UNESCO at 75: Building peace through culture, science, and education

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Created in 1946 out of destruction and devastation of the Second World War, UNESCO’s mission is to build peace through culture, science, and education. While the aspiration has not stood the test of time, the organisation, which celebrated its 75th anniversary on Friday, 12th of November, has had many successes depsite considerable challanges over the years.

Its motto is engraved in ten languages in stone in its Paris headquarters: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.

On Friday, some 28 heads of state or government attended a ceremony in Paris to mark the 75th anniversary of the institution as well as a large number of people from the world of science and culture, including Forest Whitaker, Renaud Capuçon, Angelique Kidjo, Aryana Sayeed, Farrah el Dibany, the group Joussour, Ray Lema and Laurent de Wilde. Several exceptional guests and artists will also be present via video.

As part of the celebrations, they took a symbolic journey through the minds and thinking of some of modern history’s greatest intellectuals including anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss who made a plea against racism in 1952, while the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ called for the protection of African oral traditions in 1960.

At the time, the focus was on saving the Abu Simbel temples built thirteen centuries BC and threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. Under the direction of UNESCO, these immense places of worship were dismantled stone by stone and moved.

This monumental project was the basis of the World Heritage Convention, which UNESCO drew up and signed 1972, and which today protects more than a thousand cultural and natural sites in 167 countries.

"After 75 years of existence, UNESCO’s record is remarkable", particularly in terms of heritage, Chloé Maurel, a researcher associated with the Sorbonne University and a specialist in UNESCO and the UN, told the French news agency AFP.

This is all the more so because UNESCO has been "a forum where many speakers have expressed themselves, a place for the countries of the south to assert themselves.”

Throughout its history, Unesco has tried to define standards through long-discussed conventions, such as those on copyright (1952), illicit trafficking in cultural property (1972) and intangible cultural heritage (2003), which took sixty years to sign.

But it is often criticised for its lack of dynamism and the weakness of its concrete achievements.

Very little funding

"Originally, UNESCO was not designed to be operational. It is an extremely legal organisation with an essentially normative role," says Mathilde Leloup, a lecturer at the University of Paris 8 and author of a thesis on Unesco's work in Mali.

The institution also operates "with very little funding", which "makes it difficult to carry out large-scale actions in the field", she notes. Its budget is only about €700 million per year.

In 2015, however, UNESCO enabled the restoration of the Timbuktu mausoleums by Malian craftsmen. It is also involved in the reconstruction of Mosul, destroyed by three years of urban battle against the Islamic State, and Beirut, after the explosion of the port that ravaged its centre in 2020.

All countries in the world except the US, Israel and Liechtenstein are members. Washington and Tel Aviv left UNESCO in 2017 after the Paris-based organisation recognised Palestine as a member state.

However, discussions are underway with the United States to rejoin UNESCO, says its director-general Audrey Azoulay, whose four-year term was renewed on Tuesday.

UNESCO today

Today, UNESCO is headed France's Audrey Azoulay who was re-elected as its director-general for a second mandate last week.

UNESCO had been riven by divisions when Azoulay took office in 2017 with both Israel and the United States exiting the agency over accusations of anti-Israeli bias.

Unchallenged, Azoulay won her new mandate at UNESCO's general conference with 155 votes in favour, just nine against and one abstention.

"I see this result as a sign of regained unity within our organisation. Over the last four years, we have been able to restore confidence in UNESCO, and in some respects this has also been about restoring UNESCO's confidence in itself," she said.

"We regained serenity by reducing the political tensions that stood in our way and by looking for common positions on subjects that were divisive in the past," she added.

UNESCO, which in 2020-21 received total funding of $1.4 billion from compulsory member contributions and donations, has been at the forefront of high-profile projects such as rebuilding the old city of Mosul in Iraq and schools in the Lebanese capital Beirut damaged by the August 2020 blast.

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