A general view of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The argument that global American leadership lacks alternatives is about to get its biggest boost yet.
That’s because the world’s top gathering on preservation, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee session, will be hosted next month by oil-rich Azerbaijan, which also happens to be the perpetrator of our time’s greatest cultural crime.
As Sarah Pickman and I exposed in February in the art magazine Hyperallergic, between 1997 and 2006, Azerbaijan erased all indigenous traces of the vanished Armenian population of a previously contested region called Nakhichevan. The regime that carried out this monumental crime attacked our decade-long research as “fake news.” According to Azerbaijan’s official records, the 89 demolished medieval churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stones and 22,000 tombstones, along with the Armenian history that those sacred Christian sites embodied, never existed in the first place.
The cruel irony of Azerbaijan hosting the world’s top gathering on cultural preservation is largely a byproduct of American disengagement. In 2011, after most member-states of UNESCO voted in favor of Palestinian membership, the Obama administration, as required under a pro-Israel US law, defunded the organization by $70 million. Having lost a quarter of its annual budget, UNESCO started soliciting alternative funding.
As Washington abandoned UNESCO, Azerbaijan, among others, stepped in to help the cash-strapped organization. In 2013, Azerbaijan gave a $5m. donation to UNESCO, a move that deepened an already close relationship. The hobnobbing between the two sharply increased: on donation day, Irina Bokova, who served as UNESCO director-general from 2009 to 2017, and Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s first lady and vice president, unveiled the absurdly titled exhibit “Azerbaijan: A Land of Tolerance.” Then, according to The Guardian report “UK at center of secret $3b. Azerbaijani money laundering and lobbying scheme,” published in September 2017, Bokova’s husband received “consultation” payments from the Azerbaijani government.
Critics of UNESCO, from cultural heritage defenders to ardent pro-Israel politicians, have long accused the organization of shortcomings. To many of them, a vandal’s hosting of the World Heritage Committee session may be the last straw that breaks UNESCO’s moral backbone. But weaponizing UNESCO’s flaws to belittle it ignores the realities that have made the organization so vulnerable in the first place. In addition to defunding UNESCO, Washington has recently abandoned it altogether. On January 1, 2019, the Trump administration officially withdrew from UNESCO like president Ronald Reagan had done earlier, making the organization even more susceptible to exploitation.
Despite its apparent shortcomings, UNESCO has done – and continues to do – important work. Its different arms oversee the designation of cultural and natural World Heritage Sites, educate children, empower women and serve vulnerable communities across the world. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property, an important international treaty, is one of many lasting legacies of the organization. Finally, UNESCO’s new director-general, Audrey Azoulay, and a rare Israeli-Palestinian compromise within the organization, have inspired hope in its future. Still the major international voice in protecting cultural heritage, UNESCO deserves and needs American support.
But without American financial sponsorship and input, UNESCO will likely fail. Following the Second World War, Washington helped create the United Nations and other instrumental international organizations to promote long-term peace and global cooperation, and to develop international norms. No matter how flawed, Washington’s leadership is necessary for UNESCO’s and the world’s future. The alternative is a world where a vandal’s hosting of a preservation summit is normal. The writer is the leading expert on our time’s worst cultural genocide. He is a Denver-based political analyst, activist and University of Colorado lecturer in international relations.
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