UNESCO’s utopian ambition of international peace through education and cultural exchange has gotten lost, according to Stanford anthropologist Lynn Meskell’s new work.
Meskell calls for change within the organization and for an increased representation of minorities and indigenous populations at the discussion tables during UNESCO meetings. Her recent book, A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage and the Dream of Peace, discusses her findings and recommendations.
The United States stopped paying its dues to UNESCO in 2011 and is scheduled to officially withdraw from the organization at the end of 2018, though it will remain a permanent observer of the agency. It is the second time the U.S. pulled out of UNESCO, having left in 1984, before rejoining in 2003.
Stanford News Service recently talked with Meskell about her research.
What’s the biggest takeaway from your research?
When UNESCO was first created, the nations of the world came together to save each other’s sites. It was that simple. But the shared responsibility and care that was present in earlier UNESCO efforts, like the Nubia project, are now history.
Today, it’s entirely about political and economic gain. UNESCO is now just another arena for international tensions and solidarities. And unfortunately, the World Heritage program became just a tool in a much larger arsenal of nation-state politics.
Over the past eight years of my research, I sat through many World Heritage Committee meetings, and I noticed that when it’s time to discuss matters of conservation, most countries’ delegates don’t bother to participate. All they care about is whether their sites end up on the World Heritage List, so that they could use them in tourism strategies.
That shift in focus from conservation to inscription of sites was well under way in the 1990s when Italy, which brands itself as having the most World Heritage sites in the world, nominated 10 of its sites in one go.
More recently, the World Heritage meetings in Brazil in 2010, where there was a clear pact alliance among Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, showed that the inscription of sites is now a more concerted political and strategic effort. Countries create pacts and operate together to get their sites on the list and to stave off any danger listings, which could damage their reputations.
My biggest concern is that something that was designed as a mechanism for global peace is now being used to stimulate or resurrect conflicts. For example, Cambodia’s nomination of an ancient Hindu temple for inscription in 2008 sparked violent border clashes with neighboring Thailand. We now also see some countries trying to inscribe World War II sites and sites of recent genocides, which may inflame tensions anew.
How do you want to see the World Heritage program changed?
More effort should be directed toward representing the views and rights of minorities and indigenous groups within nations who are members of UNESCO. Those groups’ access to control of sites is a huge issue that comes up at World Heritage meetings year after year.
Obviously, funding is an enormous challenge, but that’s out of UNESCO’s hands for the most part.
For the member states who are part of the World Heritage Committee, my recommendation would be to adhere to the legal principles that they’ve ratified in the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
What’s staggering is how often conventions and international agreements are ignored, and there are really no penalties. This is the sphere of diplomacy. There are only carrots and no sticks. Powerful countries get away with incredible things. So how do you hold states accountable? How do you keep countries in line on issues like conservation, human rights? There is no simple solution to that.
The structure of UNESCO makes things difficult. Individual nations are ultimately the decision makers. It’s, after all, the United Nations. So, the same countries that break the rules have to vote on whether they will endorse certain regulations.