This October, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) will elect a new director general to a six-year term. It is critical that the Obama administration focus its attention on that election, since UNESCO’s activities could pose a significant threat to U.S. interests if the wrong individual were chosen.
The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 because of its lack of accountability and excessive politicization. Under the leadership of its current director general, Koichiro Matsuura, a skilled Japanese diplomat, UNESCO made considerable progress in reforming itself. That enabled the United States to rejoin the organization in 2003.
Currently, there are three candidates for the director general’s position. They come from Egypt, Bulgaria and Lithuania. The Obama administration will have to decide whether to support one of those three or identify a new candidate, in which case it must move quickly as the deadline for new candidacies is the end of May.
On the U.N. Security Council, the United States has a veto. At UNESCO, it does not. Effective U.S. diplomacy and strong personal relationships with the secretariat and representatives of UNESCO’s 192 other member states are the only means the United States has to generate support for its ideas and policies, and to thwart the efforts of those who seek to harm U.S. interests.
When I arrived at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2004, I was the first U.S. ambassador to the organization in 20 years. Given UNESCO’s name, I expected to find my new colleagues focused on schools, scientific research and the arts. Instead, they were busy developing three new “normative instruments.” each of which would have important legal implications: a declaration on bioethics, and two treaties, known at UNESCO as “conventions,” on anti-doping in sports and “cultural diversity.”
My challenge was to ensure that U.S. values and interests would be promoted by these instruments. We successfully negotiated the Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, as well as the International Convention against Doping in Sport which has recently been ratified by the U.S. Senate and should strengthen Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
However, we were unable to protect U.S. interests in the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. That convention addresses, among other things, trade in “cultural goods and services.” The United States stood virtually alone in attempting to change the convention’s vague and ambiguous language, which could adversely affect U.S. international trade interests, such as permitting the erection of barriers to U.S. exports, particularly of film, music and television.
In fact, Brazil has already twice floated the idea of placing a punitive tax on foreign blockbuster movies as a means of raising funds for the convention’s International Fund for Cultural Diversity.
It is not difficult to see how this convention could also be used to weaken human rights. If, for example, the convention is used to prevent books, cyber information, and other publications from entering a country in the name of protecting a country’s culture, it will surely limit the right of individuals to access ideas and information freely.
Human rights have also been threatened by a concept being promoted at UNESCO by some members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), namely “culture-based respect for human rights.” This idea challenges the universality of human rights by suggesting that the application of human rights principles should take local cultural differences into consideration.
For example, girls in certain parts of the world could be denied an education on the ground that the local culture does not permit it. UNESCO has taken a leadership role in supporting the right to education for all and it must not permit that right to be undermined by any group in any part of the world, including Islamic extremists in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
In fact, UNESCO’s work in education has made real progress in the last few years, particularly in its literacy programs, which have greatly benefited from the strong support of UNESCO’s honorary ambassador for the literacy decade, former first lady Laura Bush.
UNESCO’s next director general should continue to focus on education, as well as continue UNESCO’s strong advocacy for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. This will be a real challenge, given the proliferation of speech laws that place criminal sanctions on speech that is perceived to be “insulting.” Attempted restrictions on freedom of expression contributed significantly to the departure of the United States from UNESCO in 1984, and they should now be of great concern to the Obama administration.
For the last five years, the United States has worked constructively with UNESCO’s member states in many areas. For this to continue, we must actively engage in helping to shape UNESCO’s future, starting with the election of a new director general who will lead the organization efficiently and effectively, who is sympathetic to U.S. concerns, and will ensure that UNESCO continues to support the fundamental principles of freedom and opportunity worldwide.
President Obama has stated his intention to promote multilateralism and the use of “soft power” as the hallmarks of his foreign policy. What the administration does with regard to UNESCO - and when - will send a clear signal about the seriousness of his commitment to use international organizations to advance U.S. national interests and the global good.
Louise V. Oliver served as U.S. ambassador to UNESCO from 2004 to 2009.