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The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an agency of the United Nations (UN). It was created in 1945 to promote world peace by focusing on culture and communication, education, natural sciences, and social and human sciences in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter. UNESCO aims to create the conditions for genuine dialogue based upon respect for shared values and the dignity of each civilization and culture.
UNESCO’s principal decision-making body is the General Conference, which is composed of representatives of the 191 member states (UNESCO also has six associate members). The General Conference elects the members of the executive board and appoints the director-general. The organization’s headquarters is in Paris, and it has more than 50 offices around the world. Today, UNESCO serves as a center for the dissemination and sharing of information and knowledge in the fields of education, science, culture, and communication among its member states.
Although a founding member, the United States suspended its membership of UNESCO in 1984, believing that the organization had politicized subjects it dealt with and exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press; and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.
The controversy was triggered by UNESCO’s 1980 report on the state of the contemporary media, a document known as the MacBride Report, which criticized commercialization and unequal access to information and communication. The U.S. withdrawal was followed by that of the United Kingdom (UK) in 1985 and Singapore in 1986. The UK rejoined UNESCO in 1997 as did the United States in 2003.
UNESCO uses conventions, recommendations, and declarations as international instruments for establishing common rules. Conventions define rules that member states undertake to comply with and are subject to ratification, acceptance, or accession by these states. Recommendations are instruments and norms that are not subject to ratification but that member states are invited to apply. Declarations, another means of defining norms, are not subject to ratification either but, like recommendations, they set out universal principles to which the community of states wish to attribute the greatest possible authority and to afford the broadest possible support.
Noting that cultural and natural heritage were threatened with destruction by changing social and economic conditions, UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972. The document defines natural heritage as:
Natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific point of view; geological and physiographical formations and precisely delineated areas which constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation; natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.
An Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the Cultural and Natural Heritage of Outstanding Universal Value, known as the World Heritage Committee, has been set up within UNESCO to establish, keep up-to-date, and publish, under the title of the World Heritage List, a list of properties forming part of the world’s cultural heritage and natural heritage, in other words, properties considered as having outstanding universal value. The World Heritage List includes 812 places in 137 countries and regions.
In relation to the natural sciences, UNESCO adopted two documents relevant for the recognition of the interdependence of human beings and their environment: the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (1971) and Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers (1974).
Among UNESCO’s millennium goals is the objective of helping countries to develop national strategies for sustainable development and reverse current trends in the loss of environmental resources by 2015. UNESCO states that the world urgently requires global visions of sustainable development based upon observance of human rights, mutual respect, and the alleviation of poverty.
UNESCO has developed several international programs to better assess and manage the earth’s resources. The organization helps reinforce the capacities of developing countries in the sciences, engineering and technology. UNESCO’s priorities in the field of the natural sciences are: water and associated ecosystems; oceans; capacity-building in the basic and engineering sciences; the formulation of science policies and the promotion of a culture of maintenance and promoting the application of science, engineering, and appropriate technologies for sustainable development; natural resource use and management; disaster preparedness and alleviation; and renewable sources of energy.
Under its Program on Man and Biosphere, UNESCO established in 1971 the world Network of Biosphere Reserves. In 2005 the network, which operated in 102 countries, included 482 biosphere reserves, places that promote and demonstrate a balanced relationship between humans and the biosphere.
- Sagarika Dutt, UNESCO and The Just World Order (Hauppauge, 2002);
- UNESCO, unesco.org;
- An Zi, “Preserving the Past,” Beijing Review (2005).