Controversial culture


Controversial culture

In the aftermath of the World War II, 44 nations gathered in London to create an international body under the umbrella of the UN. The newly created body, UNESCO, would be responsible for educational, scientific and cultural cooperation, as well as for the post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation of the UN member states. Over the course of the 75 years, UNESCO has implemented numerous activities in the domains of education, science and culture globally. Its World Heritage Center has enumerated over 1000 sites and monuments all over the world, with an intention to preserve their cultural or natural significance and save those sites from destruction. But has UNESCO always been successful in its mission? Could it stick to the values and principles promoted by the UN? The status of an intergovernmental organization makes UNESCO extremely bureaucratic and dependent on political influence. At the same time, the labels that UNESCO gives to different cultural and natural treasures are being used as a powerful marketing tool that end up more harming those treasures, than actually preserving them.

Text : Viktorya Muradyan


Save the Venice

In 1966, Venice was almost destroyed by floods, that have brought up a torrent of dirty water through the canals and resulted in the damage of cultural treasures valued at $6 billion. UNESCO obviously started a campaign to raise funds for saving Venice and the cultural treasures of the city. This has been one of the most ambitious campaigns ever led by UNESCO. But 50 years after the disastrous flood, which had been caused by industrialization, the future of the city is still hanging in the air. The growing tourism and developing transportation is bringing a lot of cash to the city, but it is also destroying it with the same speed. The International Council on Monuments and Sites has reported that while the Italian government uses the UNESCO World Heritage brand extensively to attract tourists, it rarely sticks to the recommendation and necessary actions to preserve the cultural value of the city. Moreover, despite all the existing proof that the city is in danger, UNESCO never put Venice on its list of World Heritage in Danger which is explained by UNESCO’s very close relationship with Italy. 



In February 2012, UNESCO organized a conference called “The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World” in Paris. As the UNESCO website said, it aimed “to explore a wide range of new questions for traditional media and journalism posed by the WikiLeaks phenomenon.” Among the 37 speakers listed, actually, none represented WikiLeaks. Moreover, WikiLeaks representatives were banned from the conference and none of them had a chance to speak up or become a part of a panel. The conference, that was supposed to be about free speech, became a center of a scandal about freedom of expression. In fact, UNESCO never picked a side in the WikiLeaks affair for diplomatic reasons. In an interview with a French media organization Cafébabel, the UNESCO representative said that “It’s extremely difficult to take the side of freedom of expression in the face of the most powerful member states. UNESCO experienced a very difficult, negative period when the US and the UK withdrew from the organization.” Which meant only one thing: UNESCO was ready to close eyes on many of its principles for the sake of financial contributions of the member states.


The prize in the name of a dictator

In 2008, UNESCO created an award called the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences to recognize “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life.” The award, which has been named after the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and funded by his $3 million contribution to UNESCO, has been heavily criticized and protested by around 270 organizations. During Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s administration, the people of Equatorial Guinea suffered from corruption and from lack of access to clean water. He has executed his predecessor and arrested and tortured his political opponents. 75% of the country’s population was living in poverty while he was enjoying the benefits of the country’s oil wealth. 
The prize has been awarded to three scientists despite the recommendations to suspend the implementation of the prize. The Obiang prize was eventually suspended two years after, in October 2010.


The Iwami Ginzan silver mine

The Japanese Iwami Ginzan town, which once was a very rich and lively community, became a ghost town after its silver mines closed in 1923. The local businessman Toshiro Nakamura wanted to bring life to the town again. Thanks to his connection with some diplomats in Tokyo, he could make Iwami Ginzan one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites even if according to an independent assessment by ICMS, it did not correspond to any of the 10 selection criteria. After appearing on this list, was flooded by hordes of tourists without having the proper capacity to host them. Not only the town disappointed curious tourists, but also local people found themselves in extremely inconvenient situations. According to one news report, one of the residents of the town came home and found three strangers sitting in his living room, thinking that it is a part of the town tour. The marketing action, composed of developing tourism through the “World Heritage” labelling (which is used quite often by different governments and local authorities), has been described by an Italian writer Marco d’Eramo as a “Unesco-cide”. 


Commemorating sites associated with violence

Although UNESCO formally promotes values such as integrity, diversity and respect, very often the organization’s decisions raise huge controversies about the level of commitment to those same values. In 1978, the island of Gorée in Senegal was listed among the World Heritage sites. The site has been a center of human exploitation and international slave trade. Similarly, in 1979, the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in 1996, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial have joined the World Heritage list in spite of their painful history. In 2016, despite the Armenian Genocide, the medieval city of Ani in Turkey became a World Heritage site. The latest case has been observed when Thailand was seeking endorsement for the Burma–Siam Railway as a Word Heritage: it was constructed by Japan using forced labor and prisoners of war. The worst thing about listing those places is that they are being intentionally exploited as touristic attractions.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial



Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island, Senegal


US-Israel-Palestine triangle

In 2011, UNESCO member states voted to admit Palestine as a full member of the Organization with 14 votes against and 52 abstentions. The United States was one of the 14 states to vote against the admission alongside Israel. In order to respond to UNESCO’s action, the Obama administration froze its annual financial contributions to the organization (around $80 million). Since then, the US has not paid around $600 million in dues. The resolutions about the cultural sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank have been constantly debated because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. In 2012, UNESCO established a chair at the Islamic University of Gaza in the field of Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space science. Israel was furious with this decision. They had previously bombed one of the wings of the university fueled by suspicions that Palestinians develop and store weapons there. Eventually, in 2019 both US and Israel officially left UNESCO 2 years after announcing their intention, causing huge financial damage to the organization. Both countries justified their decision by saying that there is an obvious “anti-Israel bias” within the organization and the US called UNESCO a “tool for Israel's enemies”. The interesting fact is that the US has been more offended by this “anti-Israel bias” and according to some reports, the US has not even informed Israel about its decision to leave the organization. 

After all, it was just the last episode of a very complicated history of the UNESCO-US relations. In 1974, US president Ford froze payments to UNESCO, because the latter recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Under Ronald Reagan the US left UNESCO in 1983 and only regained a full membership with the Bush administration.


Honoring Che Guevara & Atatürk

In 2013, UNESCO took a decision to include 431 manuscripts and 567 documents about or related to Cuban Revolution leader Che Guevara called “The Life and Works of Ernesto Che Guevara” in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. This register regroups documents that are considered to have “world significance and outstanding universal value.” Different parties, including the American Government and UN Watch, heavily criticized this act calling it “disrespectful toward the families of the people who have been executed by Che Guevara.”

This was not very surprising, as in 1981, UNESCO and the UN celebrated the Atatürk Centennial, without considering his involvement in the Greek genocide. UNESCO’s choice of “cultural and historic values” does not have any coherence with the values that the organization tries to promote.

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