Global Journalist

UNESCO welcomes back U.S.A.

The United States has returned to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Announcing this decision in his speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, President George W. Bush said, “This organization has been reformed, and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights, tolerance and learning.”

This news came 17 years and nine months after Secretary of State George Shultz confirmed in December 1984 his country’s decision to withdraw, citing poor management and advocacy for limitations on free press by promoting the so-called New World Information and Communication Order.

One year later, in December 1985, the United Kingdom followed suit, referring to “inefficient management, meaningless studies and excessive expenditure.” Since then, UNESCO has come a long way on the road of substantive and structural reforms. In 1989, the organization abandoned NWICO and has steadfastly resisted attempts to resuscitate it ever since.

For an intergovernmental organization with 188 member states, that was not easy. However, it was helped by allies such as the International Press Institute, the World Press Freedom Committee, the International Federation of Journalists, the World Association of Newspapers, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Inter American Press Association. They all wanted UNESCO to rediscover its fundamental principle of the free flow of information inscribed in the first article of its constitution. The organization has managed during all these years to be at the forefront of the worldwide fight for press freedom.

Almost every year from 1990 to 1997, UNESCO, in cooperation with media non-governmental organizations, had been holding conferences in different regions of the world to provide local journalists with a public forum for reflection and debate. Each of these conferences — in Windhoek, Almaty, Santiago, Sanaa and Sofia — was an important step toward helping the professional community and public at large realize that without free media, there can be no real democracy.

This advocacy went along with practical aid. UNESCO has implemented dozens of communication projects in all parts of the world. They have started an independent newspaper-distribution network in Serbia; independent radio and TV stations in Sarajevo; community radio stations in Africa, East Timor and the Philippines; journalist training in Latin America; an international observatory of violence on the screen; assistance in drafting democratic media laws; and support for indigenous TV production — and these are just a few examples of UNESCO’s continuous actions in the field of media and communications.

All these years the United States was observing UNESCO — sometimes with sympathy, sometimes providing financial support for selected projects — but on the whole remaining just an observer.

The U.S. government’s position was difficult to understand, especially when President Clinton admitted in 1995 that there were no more objective obstacles to the United States returning and even more so after the United Kingdom rejoined in 1997.

Moreover, those in UNESCO who devoted themselves to press-freedom issues could not understand why the United States, which withdrew from UNESCO primarily because of NWICO, remained indifferent to the fact that the New World Information Order was still very much alive in the U.N. Information Committee, a committee of UNESCO’s parent organization, passing from one document to another.
Sometimes the United States said that UNESCO still had to improve its management. Another opinion often heard was that the U.S. administration believed it could better influence UNESCO from the outside.

The “good news” was that, during this period, the American civil society and nongovernmental organizations, just like all major international media organizations supporting press freedom, grew closer to UNESCO than they used to be. They united with UNESCO by promoting free flow of information. The city councils of Chicago and Los Angeles, the U.N. foundation, and many congressmen supported the United States’ return to UNESCO. On Sept. 26, 2000, George Shultz, then secretary of state, wrote to the chair of the Emergency Coalition for U.S. Financial Support of United Nations that he approved of the United States’ rejoining UNESCO.

UNESCO needed the U.S. membership, but not as much for financial reasons as many may think.

It is true that when the United States and the United Kingdom left UNESCO, it lost 30 percent of its budget. But UNESCO has survived through all these years; an increase of the existing $270 million budget can certainly help, but it won’t do miracles. An average American university budget would surpass that of UNESCO, the international organization that faces countless world-scale challenges across all of its fields of competence, whether they are basic education, scientific research and environmental protection, ethics and human rights, cultural heritage and cultural diversity, or communication and information.

What UNESCO really lost when the United States withdrew was the universality, the weight of the U.S. democracy
and the input of U.S. intellectuals.

In 1997, when UNESCO awarded its first World Press Freedom Prize to jailed Chinese journalist Gao Yu, Federico Mayor, the former director-general, had to withstand great pressure and even threats to boycott UNESCO.

Before September 11, the director-general of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, had been warning the world about the nature of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At that time, UNESCO was not able to prevent the destruction of the unique Buddha statutes in Afghanistan, but the organization had already made clear that there’s a very thin line between the destruction of cultural heritage and the killing of people.

Dealing with such challenges would have been easier if the organization had the strength of the entire international community.

As Fred Echard, spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, stated, “Having a country the size of the United States, with the resources of the United States … will energize the agency and help it more energetically and effectively address its agenda.”

The United States has returned to UNESCO at a time when human rights and speech and press freedoms, which only a few years ago used to be the main slogans of the world’s leaders, have faded out of focus. Among today’s political leaders, quite a few would still put human rights and freedoms above the number of Boeings, Mirages or MiGs sold.

The events of September 11 changed the state of democratic freedoms in the world for the worse. It is easy to stand for the freedom of information and democracy in a peaceful environment. It’s much more difficult when the world is confronted by explosions and loss of lives.

UNESCO needs the United States, but let us put it straight — the United States needs UNESCO no less.

James Ottaway, president of World Press Freedom Committee, and Ronald Koven, representative of the same organization in Europe, wrote in July 2002, “U.S. security can no longer be defined in purely military terms and … the extremists’ offensive against American cultural values must be answered through school curriculums, working for tolerance and rationalism, and the correcting of cultural misperceptions in foreign publics.”

The decision of the United States to rejoin was worth UNESCO’s waiting because it can encourage further reforms in the organization.

By 2002, the number of directors and higher-ranking officials in the UNESCO secretariat had already been slashed by half. That was not easy to achieve, and I, who headed the task, am well placed to know that much more needs to be done in terms of modernizing working methods, and not only within the secretariat. It is high time to reform UNESCO’s government bodies, too. With its 58 members, the UNESCO Executive Board is the largest in the U.N. system. It meets twice a year for almost three weeks. But due to its size, a meaningful intellectual discussion, which was the original idea of UNESCO founders, is difficult to achieve.

I believe that the United States, with a fresh eye and the experience of an 18-year observation, will be of great help to UNESCO.

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