UNESCO's aim is "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information".
Other priorities of the organization include attaining quality Education For All and lifelong learning, addressing emerging social and ethical challenges, fostering cultural diversity, a culture of peace and building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication.
The broad goals and concrete objectives of the international community — as set out in the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) — underpin all UNESCO's strategies and activities.
UNESCO and its mandate for international co-operation can be traced back to the League of Nations resolution on 21 September 1921, to elect a Commission to study the question. The International Committee on Intellectual Co-operation (ICIC) was officially created on 4 January 1922, as a consultative organ composed of individuals elected based on their personal qualifications. The International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) was then created in Paris on 9 August 1925, to act as the executing agency for the ICIC. On 18 December 1925, the International Bureau of Education (IBE) began work as a non-governmental organization in the service of international educational development. However, the work of these predecessor organizations was largely interrupted by the onset of World War II.
After the signing of the Atlantic Charter and the Declaration of the United Nations, the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME) began meetings in London which continued between 16 November 1942 to 5 December 1945. On 30 October 1943, the necessity for an international organization was expressed in the Moscow Declaration, agreed upon by China, the United Kingdom, the United States and the USSR. This was followed by the Dumbarton Oaks Conference proposals of 9 October 1944. Upon the proposal of CAME and in accordance with the recommendations of the United Nations Conference on International Organization (UNCIO), held in San Francisco in April–June 1945, a United Nations Conference for the establishment of an educational and cultural organization (ECO/CONF) was convened in London 1–16 November 1945 with 44 governments represented. A prominent figure in the initiative for UNESCO was Rab Butler, the Minister of Education for the United Kingdom. At the ECO/CONF, the Constitution of UNESCO was introduced and signed by 37 countries, and a Preparatory Commission was established. The Preparatory Commission operated between 16 November 1945, and 4 November 1946—the date when UNESCO's Constitution came into force with the deposit of the twentieth ratification by a member state.
The first General Conference took place from 19 November to 10 December 1946, and elected Dr. Julian Huxley to the post of Director-General. The Constitution was amended in November 1954 when the General Conference resolved that members of the Executive Board would be representatives of the governments of the States of which they are nationals and would not, as before, act in their personal capacity. This change in governance distinguished UNESCO from its predecessor, the CICI, in terms of how member states would work together in the organization's fields of competence. As member states worked together over time to realize UNESCO's mandate, political and historical factors have shaped the organization's operations in particular during the Cold War, the decolonization process, and the dissolution of the USSR.
Among the major achievements of the organization is its work against racism, for example through influential statements on race starting with a declaration of anthropologists (among them was Claude Lévi-Strauss) and other scientists in 1950 and concluding with the 1978 Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice. In 1956, the Republic of South Africa withdrew from UNESCO claiming that some of the organization's publications amounted to "interference" in the country's "racial problems." South Africa rejoined the organization in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
UNESCO's early work in the field of education included the pilot project on fundamental education in the Marbial Valley, Haiti, started in 1947. This project was followed by expert missions to other countries, including, for example, a mission to Afghanistan in 1949. In 1948, UNESCO recommended that Member States should make free primary education compulsory and universal. In 1990 the World Conference on Education for All, in Jomtien, Thailand, launched a global movement to provide basic education for all children, youths and adults. Ten years later, the 2000 World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, led member governments to commit to achieving basic education for all by 2015.
Arid Zone programming, 1948–1966, is another example of an early major UNESCO project in the field of natural sciences. In 1968, UNESCO organized the first intergovernmental conference aimed at reconciling the environment and development, a problem which continues to be addressed in the field of sustainable development. The main outcome of the 1968 conference was the creation of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme.
In the field of communication, the free flow of information has been a priority for UNESCO from its beginnings. In the years immediately following World War II, efforts were concentrated on reconstruction and on the identification of needs for means of mass communication around the world. UNESCO started organizing training and education for journalists in the 1950s. In response to calls for a "New World Information and Communication Order" in the late 1970s, UNESCO established the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, which produced the 1980 MacBride report (named after the Chair of the Commission, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Seán MacBride). Following the MacBride report, UNESCO introduced the Information Society for All programme and Toward Knowledge Societies programme in the lead up to the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 (Geneva) and 2005 (Tunis).
In 2011, Palestine became a UNESCO member following a vote in which 107 member states supported and 14 opposed. Laws passed in the United States in 1990 and 1994 mean that it cannot contribute financially to any UN organisation that accepts Palestine as a full member. As a result, it withdrew its funding which accounted for about 22% of UNESCO's budget. Israel also reacted to Palestine's admittance to UNESCO by freezing Israel payments to the UNESCO and imposing sanctions to the Palestinian Authority, claiming that Palestine's admittance would be detrimental "to potential peace talks". Two years after they stopped paying their dues to UNESCO, US and Israel lost UNESCO voting rights in 2013.
UNESCO implements its activities through the five programme areas of Education, Natural Sciences, Social and Human Sciences, Culture, and Communication and Information.
Education: UNESCO supports research in comparative education; and provides expertise and fosters partnerships to strengthen national educational leadership and the capacity of countries to offer quality education for all. This includes the
UNESCO Chairs, an international network of 644 UNESCO Chairs, involving over 770 institutions in 126 countries.
Migration Museums Initiative: Promoting the establishment of museums for cultural dialogue with migrant populations.
UNESCO-CEPES, the European Centre for Higher Education: established in 1972 in Bucharest, Romania, as a de-centralized office to promote international co-operation in higher education in Europe as well as Canada, USA and Israel. Higher Education in Europe is its official journal.
UNESCO enjoys official relations with 322 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Most of these are what UNESCO calls "operational", a select few are "formal". The highest form of affiliation to UNESCO is "formal associate", and the 22 NGOs with formal associate (ASC) relations occupying offices at UNESCO are:
Elections for the renewal of the position of Director-General took place in Paris from 7 to 23 September 2009. Eight candidates ran for the position, and 58 countries voted for them. The Executive Council gathered from 7 to 23 September, the vote itself beginning on the 17th. Irina Bokova was elected the new Director-General.
The list of the Directors-General of UNESCO since its establishment in 1946 is as follows:
Santiago de Chile – Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean and National Office to Chile
Controversy and reform
New World Information and Communication order
UNESCO has been the centre of controversy in the past, particularly in its relationships with the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore and the former Soviet Union. During the 1970s and 1980s, UNESCO's support for a "New World Information and Communication Order" and its MacBride report calling for democratization of the media and more egalitarian access to information was condemned in these countries as attempts to curb freedom of the press. UNESCO was perceived by some as a platform for communists and Third World dictators to attack the West, a stark contrast to accusations made by the USSR in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1984, the United States withheld its contributions and withdrew from the organization in protest, followed by the United Kingdom in 1985. Singapore took the opportunity to withdraw also at the end of 1985, citing rising membership fees. Following a change of government in 1997, the UK rejoined. The United States rejoined in 2003, followed by Singapore on 8 October 2007.
Israel was admitted to UNESCO in 1949, one year after its creation. In 1974, UNESCO stripped Israel of its membership on the grounds of alleged damage being done by Israel's archaeological excavations on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. UNESCO defended this decision with two statements in 1974 and 1975, but renewed Israel's membership in 1977, after the United States threatened to withhold $40 million of funding from the organization.
In 2010, Israel designated the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron and Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem as National Heritage Sites and announced restoration work, prompting criticism from the United States and protests from Palestinians. In October 2010, UNESCO's Executive Board voted to declare the sites as "al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs" and "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb" and stated that they were "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories" and any unilateral Israeli action was a violation of international law. UNESCO described the sites as significant to "people of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions", and accused Israel of highlighting only the Jewish character of the sites. Israel in turn accused UNESCO of "detach[ing] the Nation of Israel from its heritage", and accused it of being politically motivated. The Rabbi of the Western Wall claimed that Rachel's tomb had not previously been declared a holy Muslim site. Israel partially suspended ties with UNESCO. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon declared that the resolution was a "part of Palestinian escalation". Zevulun Orlev, chairman of the Knesset Education and Culture Committee, referred to the resolutions as an attempt to undermine the mission of UNESCO as a scientific and cultural organization that promotes cooperation throughout the world.
On 28 June 2011, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, at Jordan's insistence, censured Israel's decision to demolish and rebuild the Mughrabi Gate Bridge in Jerusalem for safety reasons. Israel stated that Jordan had signed an agreement with Israel stipulating that the existing bridge must be razed for safety reasons; Jordan disputed the agreement, saying it was only signed under U.S. pressure. Israel was also unable to address the UNESCO committee over objections from Egypt.
In January 2014, days before it was scheduled to open, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, "indefinitely postponed" and effectively cancelled an exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center entitled, "The People, The Book, the Land: The 3,500-year relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel." The event was scheduled to run from January 21 through January 30 in Paris. Bokova cancelled the event after representatives of Arab states at UNESCO argued that its display would "harm the peace process". The author of the exhibition, Professor Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, called the cancellation an "appalling act," and characterized Bukova's decision as "an arbitrary act of total cynicism and, really, contempt for the Jewish people and its history."
Palestinian Youth Magazine controversy
In February 2011, an article was published in a Palestinian youth magazine in which a teenage girl described one of her four role-models as Adolf Hitler. In December 2011, UNESCO, which partly funded the magazine, condemned the material and subsequently withdrew support.
Islamic University of Gaza controversy
In 2012, UNESCO decided to establish a chair at the Islamic University of Gaza in the field of astronomy, astrophysics, and space sciences, fueling much controversy and criticism. Israel's foreign ministry expressed shock and criticized the move, and stated that the university supports Hamas (which Israel and other countries designate as a terrorist organization) and houses bomb laboratories for Hamas. The ministry called the university "a known greenhouse and breeding ground for Hamas terrorist".
The university has been linked to Hamas in the past. However, the university head, Kamalain Shaath, defended UNESCO, stating that "the Islamic University is a purely academic university that is interested only in education and its development". Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Nimrod Barkan planned to submit a letter of protest with information about the university's ties to Hamas, especially angry that this was the first Palestinian university that UNESCO chose to cooperate with. A senior foreign ministry official stated: "Before UNESCO gave a chair to the Technion and the Interdisciplinary Center [institutions in Haifa and Herzliya, respectively] they checked things with a magnifying glass. In Gaza no one checked." The Jewish organization B'nai B'rith criticized the move as well. B'nai B'rith international president Allan Jacobs said: "To so strongly associate an organization meant to promote peaceful goals with a terrorist organization is yet another contributor to the world body's tarnished reputation in the international community."
Products or services
IDAMS – proprietary software package for processing and analysing numerical data developed, maintained and disseminated by UNESCO.
^UNESCO. Executive Board, 42nd Session. (1955). Report of the Director-General on the Activities of the Organization (March–November 1955). Paris, 9 November 1955. 42 EX/43. Part I Relations with Member States, paragraph 3.
^The Haiti pilot project: phase one, 1947–1949. (1951). Monographs on Fundamental Education IV. UNESCO: Paris.