Federico Mayor, Director General of UNESCO, described the organisation as “Affirming an intellectual and moral solidarity in the mind of humanity” last month

The Art Newspaper surveys the successes and failures of the much criticised organisation



The state of play now.

The end of a noble ambition?

The organisation is short of money and has lost much of its authority.

At the time of its inception UNESCO was a meeting-place for intellectuals and scholars from throughout the world, but in the opinion of many it has since been taken over by diplomats. Although the General Directorate is trying to prevent it from becoming no more than a technical agency of the UN, their endeavours are too faint-hearted to be effective.

In the words of one observer, “UNESCO is known throughout the world, but it has difficulty in touching the hearts of the public at large.” Ever since it was created the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has set itself ambitious targets, but unfortunately its activities tend not to be visible in the field.

The mood there today tends to be rather sombre even though the number of member States is continually increasing. Last December UNESCO welcomed South Africa as its 183rd member. Because of a shortage of resources UNESCO depends on almost 600 non-governmental organisations, not counting the UNESCO Clubs and Foundations.

The financial crisis that started with the departure of the United States in 1984 made the organisation less able to undertake work in fields such as education, a failure that prompted the World Bank to take an interest in that area, firmly believing that it is fundamental to economic development. UNICEF, a United Nations body, also drew up its educational programmes for children without referring them to UNESCO as they used to do.

The organisation has undoubtedly lost some of its authority, as is reflected in a fall in the readership of the Courrier de l’Unesco, the institution’s own publication. The number of subscribers dropped from 250,000 in 1978 to 80,000 in 1988, and is even lower today.

When the United States slammed the door on UNESCO in 1984, followed by Great Britain and Singapore in 1985, they blamed Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, then Director General, for “ideological bias, excessive politicisation and poor management”. The departing countries were extremely unhappy with the so-called “Nomic” project (for a new world order in information and communication), seeing it as an attack against the free movement of information and the western media. “Nomic” was thought up in the 1970s and had the drawback of being supported by the Soviet Union and Socialist countries. It was the influential Heritage Foundation, an American pressure group which is regarded as reactionary and anti-Third World, which did its utmost to bring about US withdrawal. From the early days the United States, which would have liked UNESCO to take part in the fight against Communism, had suspected it of pro-socialist bias. In the late 1940s the American authorities, steeped in McCarthyism, were afraid that the executive council of UNESCO would end up dominated by Marxist intellectuals.

Since he took over as Director General in 1987 Federico Mayor to undertake poorly defined tasks, has continued to grow. “Most of them do work which should be carried out by members of staff,” Jane Wright, chairwoman of UNESCO’s Staff Association, states. In its April issue the Association’s journal denounced a “tendency to create jobs not to fulfil a purpose but to accommodate people” and calls for the general directorate to apply firm measures to ensure openness.

Since 1993, at the instigation of Japan, the executive council has been composed of government representatives rather than intellectual luminaries appointed “in their own right”. This reform is a move in the right direction, in the eyes of the United States. Writing in Le Monde as far back as 1987 the journalist Paul Balta deplored a shift in direction reducing UNESCO to “a purely diplomatic forum”. “The executive council consists mainly of diplomats, often second-rate ones or those nearing the end of their careers, and it would be hard to find men of culture, scholars, among them,” he wrote. That trend has become still more pronounced. Hervé Bourges, now chairman of the CSA (Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel), was France’s appointed ambassador at UNESCO in 1994, but during his period of “retirement” there he felt, he said, “like a caged lion”. He has since been replaced by Claude Harel, a career diplomat nearing retirement.

In the early 1990s, as a way of relaunching the institution, Federico Mayor decided to embark on large programmes devoted to thinking and forecasting, asking eminent people to be responsible for them. Thus UNESCO set up the Delors Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century as a means of reestablishing its supremacy in the fields of education and science, and the World Commission for Culture and Development under the chairmanship of Javier Perez De Cuellar, formerly Secretary General of the United Nations. In 1992 the general directorate also set up a symposium of twenty-one members from all parts of the world, all people of intellectual distinction, ranging from the American-Palestinian essayist Edward Said to the Czech head of state and dramatist, Vaclav Havel, by way of the French philosopher, Michel Serres. The mission of this symposium which was intended to meet three times every two years was to “provide UNESCO with inspiration for the coming decade”: a faint-hearted attempt to return to the organisation’s roots, bringing in people of intellectual distinction who in theory would not be tied to their respective governments. But this experiment fizzled out, and the symposium never got beyond its first meeting. Yet it was an attempt to prevent UNESCO from becoming no more than a technical agency, an aim openly expressed by the Japanese and shared by the United States, who would not be unhappy to see UNESCO dismantled and different bodies made responsible for carrying out specific missions. The main contributors could then steer their activities as they saw fit.

“The American administration is in favour of the United States rejoining UNESCO as a full member, but no date has been set. At the moment it’s not possible for budgetary reasons,” Denise Mathieu, the US observer at UNESCO, says, and the British observer there, David Hay-Edie, gives the same reply. The two English-speaking countries seem to be in no hurry to rejoin the other member states. The fact that there is a school of thought in the United States which condemns the United Nations system as futile makes it an even more inauspicious moment for them to return to the fold. So UNESCO will just have to go on tightening its belt.

How it all started

16 November 1945 Thirty-seven countries sign the document in London setting up UNESCO.

4 November 1946 The document comes into effect on being ratified by the twentieth signatory state, Greece.

1954 Admission of the Soviet Union.

1960 Sixteen newly independent African states are admitted.

8 March 1960 Appeal by the Director General of UNESCO for the Abu Simbel temples in Upper Egypt to be saved.

1961 - 1974 René Maheu from France is Director General.

16 November 1972 Inception of the World Heritage Convention.

1974 - 1987 Amadou Mahtar M’Bow from Senegal is Director General.

December 1984 The United States withdraws from UNESCO, criticizing the Director General’s management and politics. Their withdrawal leads to a financial crisis.

December 1985 Britain and Singapore also withdraw from UNESCO.

1987 Federico Mayor from Spain is elected Director General. He is re-elected in 1993.

December 1994 UNESCO welcomes its 183rd member state, South Africa.

The dream

Born out of war to promote peace and learning

The French concept of a broad-based, humanistic organisation was the chosen model in 1945

“Creating the spirit of peace in the world”: at the end of World War II, UNESCO’s mission seemed crystal clear to Léon Blum, the first president of the UNESCO General Conference. But it was not a new idea. In the 1930s the poet Paul Valéry had already argued in favour of setting up an “association of minds” on an international scale. The International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation came into being within the framework of the League of Nations but disappeared without trace in the turmoil of World War II.

In 1945 two proposals were under discussion. The first, which was supported by most of the Education Ministers within the Allied Powers, was in favour of creating a technical institution like other specialist agencies established within the framework of the United Nations. The second proposal was put forward by France and called for the creation of an organisation with more general, moral aims. The French concept won the day. It was decided that the headquarters of UNESCO would be in Paris, and the UNESCO building officially opened in 1958 was the work of three architects: Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss. The first Director General was the British scientist, Julian Huxley. The “S” (for Scientific) was inserted into UNESCO’s name at the instigation of Britain.

Initially the executive council included such prestigious names as Indira Gandhi, Archibald MacLeish, Amadou Hampaté Ba and René Cassin. Jacques Maritain proposed achieving agreement “not on shared speculative thought, but on shared practical thought. Of course it is not much, but it is the bedrock of an agreement among minds. It is nonetheless a sufficient basis for undertaking great work.”

World Heritage Sites

A helpful accolade but dogged by politics

The list of designated sites grows every year, but not without controversy

“The old town of Shibam in the Hadramaout valley of the Yemen was added to UNESCO list of of World Heritage sites in 1982. Since then”, according to José-Marie Bel, architect and specialist in that region, “practically no restoration work has been carried out.”

The World Heritage treaty was set up in 1972 in the wake of the major rescue operation mounted to save the temples of Upper Egypt by UNESCO in 1960. Today. 142 countries have signed up to it, with two new arrivals this year, Lithuania and the Dominican Republic.

There are currently 440 manmade and natural sites on the list, spread over one hundred countries, and the number continues to increase every year. A piece of industrial history made its first appearance this year: the German iron and steel smelting factory at Voeklingen, Sarre. France, for example, has twenty listed sites, ranging from Mont Saint-Michel to the cathedral at Bourges (although not the abbey of Saint Denis). Without doubt, this is UNESCO’s most prestigious programme and one of its most visible. Even after leaving the organisation, Britain and the US remained adherents to the convention.

There is certainly room, however, for criticism of the list of sites, both for its representativeness and its realism. Heritage is a political business: the convention seems to state two opposing principles in that it declares heritage sites to be the property of all humanity, while acknowledging that they are within sovereign states, who are the ones to nominate potential sites. Over the years, China has refused to add Tibetan sites to the list, a country it has occupied since the 1950s. It finally revoked its veto and the Palace of Potala at Lhassa—one of the leading symbols of Tibetan Buddhism—was inscribed last December.

In another case, Turkey has not until now put forward any proposals relating to Armenian culture, while Syria has blithely ignored the Crac des Chevaliers, symbol of the Crusaders’ presence in the Levant in the Middle Ages. In general, countries inevitably put forward sites whose history reflects the chosen interpretation of their own, as well as very often focussing on their capital city, or a monument within it. Conversely, some of the most obvious places remain to be listed. Chile, for example, has for years dragged its feet over Easter Island, which finally gets recognition this month. There is no Austrian site at all, for the simple reason that Austria did not sign up until 1992, fearing the financial burden that having to contribute to other countries’ restoration programmes would bring with it.

In fact, going on the list does not automatically mean that assitance will be provided for your country’s restoration schemes. Herein lies one of the biggest sources of discontent about the whole idea: small countries expect to receive assistance, while the bigger ones, who already have their own systems in place, look on list as more a matter of prestige. Furthermore, while the convention calls upon sites to be cared for, it leaves the financing of such work largely to individual countries. The organisation’s Heritage Committee looks after a fund which member states contribute to, but this only supplies experts and materials and initial setting-up costs.

Having one of your sites inscribed on the list is certainly prestigious, but it carries considerable responsibilities with it. The owning State must undertake to look after it, and not build any polluting factories nearby. However, there is very little action that can be taken against countries who claim to be increasing appreciation of the site (one of the aims of the convention) but in reality are ruining it through tourist exploitation.

The financial crises

Britain and the US: still unreconciled

The UK and US pulled out in protest in 1984/85. Although they acknowledge recent reforms, they are reluctant to rejoin, largely, it seems for reasons of cost

london. Britain was a founder member of UNESCO and the UNESCO constitution is still lodged at the Foreign Office in London. The first UN Secretry General was the British biologist, Sir Julian Huxley.

In 1984 Britain gave notice of withdrawal from the organisation, following closely on the US decision to do the same. Twelve reasons concerning aspects of the organisation’s management and programme activities were given. Concern centred on the “politicisation” of UNESCO and the duplication of work already within the purview of other more competent UN bodes; over concern “liberation movements” which had led UNESCO to prioritise collective rights over human rights; the financial and administrative mismanagement of UNESCO headquarters in Paris, together with over-concentration of resources at the headquarters as opposed to out in the field; the usurpation of the decision making role of UNESCO’s Executive Board by the Director General and the Secretariat; the readiness of UNESCO to countenance restrictions on press freedom in the effort to create a “New World Information and Communications Order”.

The departure of the United States and Britain from UNESCO led to a serious financial crisis and for the past ten years the organisation has had to make do with a reduced budget. United States contributions actually amounted to 25%, and UNESCO has not managed to make up for the financial loss resulting from their withdrawal. The 1994-95 budget was £285 million ($450 million). Nowadays Japan is the top contributor, paying in more than 13%, while France has paid £26 million ($40 million) in the last two years. Extra-budgetary resources (£180 million, or $285 million, over the same period) devoted to specific programmes launched by UNESCO are additional to the ordinary budget, and are mostly provided by other United Nations bodies and the World Bank. Often accused of excessive bureaucracy, UNESCO devotes about 57% of its budget to staffing expenses, still less than other United Nations institutions.

From the election of Federico Mayor in 1987 the organisation began seriously to tackle its deficiencies. Britain’s Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg acknowledged these improvements in 1992, while the Foreign Affairs Committee (session 1992-93) recommended rejoining.

To date, however, nothing has changed. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, a spokesman at the British Embassy in Paris, where Britain’s Observer to UNESCO, David Haye-Edie is based, said “we are continuing to monitor the situation closely and report to London. Things are much improved but no decision has yet been reached.” Much of the delay undoubtedly hinges on the cost of rejoining, currently estimated for Britain at around £11 million per annum (or about £8.8 million if the US also rejoined). In a reply to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s findings, the Secretary of State for the Foreign Office noted that this amount would further stretch the FO’s budget and would probably have to come from the Overseas Development Agency’s budget, adding, “this would probably reduce the amount available for the bilateral aid programme”.

International Council of Museums

Big changes for museum support group

4% of its funds come from UNESCO

but this has now stopped, to be replaced

by “framework contracts”

paris. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) was one of the non-governmental agencies which received direct funding from UNESCO. However, from next year this arrangement will end and a new funding policy will take its place. This will involve funding for specific projects only, a system based on so-called “framework contracts”. Under the previous system, ICOM’s subsidy amounted to FFr358,000 in 1994, or 4% of its £46,000; $73,000 budget. Although ICOM are saying that the grant was not “vital”, it is a severe shock, as the International Council of Museums had already reduced its staff in recent years. It will have to depend more on its members’ contributions and other grants, particularly those paid by the Direction des Musées in France, or the United States Committee.

Lodged free of charge at the Maison de l’Unesco in Paris, ICOM is one of those non-governmental organisations which have developed close links with UNESCO. Since it was formed in 1946 its mission has been to promote and develop museums and the museum profession. With the support of its 12,000 members in 134 countries, and with an active presence on 102 national committees and twenty-five international ones, ICOM has been combating the illegal traffic in cultural goods for some years. A workshop on this topic was held in Mali last year when ICOM published Cent objets disparus. Pillage en Afrique, having brought out a similar work on the looting of Angkor in Cambodia in 1993 (see p. 24). The book on Africa enabled several objects to be recovered on the French and Belgian art markets, a Malagasy statuette known as “Sakalava” among them.

Unlike UNESCO which works in an inter-governmental framework, ICOM is in direct contact with people in the profession. It sometimes works with UNESCO under contract, and in this context has coordinated the training of those in charge of the Museum of Nubia at Aswan and the sending of experts to Albania and Niger. But in view of the strict budgetary constraints UNESCO is working under, other contracts which were under discussion have been deferred.

Cultural property

A major report on antiquities smuggling

The preliminary study to be ready by 31 January 1996

UNESCO has commissioned a preliminary study of the trade in antiquities in order to investigate

o the availability of objects of archaeological interest for the market: whether the breakup of collections creates a problem; whether there are reserve collections which could be made available; whether dealers are interested in handling material of average quality;

o whether recently excavated material can be distinguished from that which has long been in circulation;

o whether clandestinely excavated material can be regarded as “stolen” and the relationship of “theft” to “illicit export”;

o whether dealers are able to police the trade;

o what areas of cooperation can be established between archaeologists and dealers.

This new report is an attempt to study various proposals which have been made to improve the legal trade which have not been the subject of sufficient serious study and which, it is said, would reduce the demand for cultural objects unlawfully excavated and/or exported.

The Fifth Symposium on the International Art Trade and Law held in September last year in Vienna devoted a day to the topic of the “A Licit Trade in Cultural Objects”. Suggestions were made that the illicit trade would be curtailed if source nations were to make more material available to collectors from existing surplus collections and from supervised excavations.

The Vienna conference followed a meeting in May last year of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation. This body made a number of recommendations following its consideration of a report on the “Feasibility of an international code of ethics for dealers in culturalproperty for the purpose of more effective control of illicit traffic in cultural property”. One of these was to the effect that the Director-General of UNESCO be invited to commission specialised studies by experts to clarify issues in the international trade in cultural objects that are disputed or unclear. The study on the trade in antiquities is the first of these.

The consultant’s report is to be completed by 31 January 1996 and will be considered by the Intergovernmental Committee later that year. In making the study, UNESCO requires consultation with dealers, collectors, archaeologists, museum authorities and other specialists.

Any person who wishes to express a view on these matters is invited to contact Dr Patrick J. O’Keefe, 6 Villa des Entrepreneurs, Paris, 75015, France, fax (+33) 1 45 75 41 18.


Standing back to help better

Disagreements with the government over Angkor

have led to a more arm’s-length approach, but the commitment remains

UNESCO’s role in Cambodia has changed since the arrival last year of Special Representative Khamliene Nhouyvanisvong. Their relationship with the newly elected government in 1993 was overshadowed by a fall-out with Minister of State Van Molyvann regarding projects at Angkor which Mr Van Molyvann felt should be more directly under Cambodian control. It resulted in the departure of UNESCO representative, Richard Engelhardt. Mr Nhouyvanisvong, diplomatically, has concentrated on education.

Prior to the row, UNESCO played a major role at Angkor with an office inside Angkor Conservation. They have withdrawn from this and all decisions regarding the temples are now made by the International Committee for the Co-ordination and Safeguarding of Angkor, a joint government and internationally sponsored body at which UNESCO assists. It also assists the new national organisation, Aspara, which manages what is to become the Angkor Park.

With a direct cost budget of US$1 million, and a further $345,000 a year to cover personnel costs, UNESCO has three offices: Phnom Penh, with seven expatriate and thirty local staff, and Siem Reap and Battambang, two renovated provincial centres, with five and three staff respectively.

Education programmes, with funding of nearly $5 million funding sources this year, consist of non-formal, basic and higher education, youth and sports activities, teacher and vocational training, capacity building, science and technology, social studies, children’s art and temple and community learning centres.

Learning centres focus on literacy, a priority with the national average only 37%. After a literacy workshop in April, attended by eighty-six participants, 1,800 teachers are being trained in six regional colleges in the two provinces. Mr Nhouyvanisvong said that a “bibliobus”, a travelling library, was being opened.

Other projects include what is described in UNESCO-speak as “capacity building in education and human resources sector management”, part of a $3.2 million plan started in May, with the ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. A conference on higher education in October was attended by 300 participants from government, universities, non-government organisations and the World Bank. A proposal for a $1.5 million university in northern Cambodia was submitted to Japanese donors. Schools in floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake have been created. UNICEF donated $93,856 for primary science education, and a physics working group began at the University of Phnom Penh. However, books ordered last year did not arrive until May. Cambodian UN volunteers are teaching at the Institute of Technology. An AIDS and population education advisory group has been formed.

UNESCO has been central to the survival of cultural traditions such as shadow puppet theatre, silkweaving, woodcarving, and pinpeat music. They are collecting children’s art for a contest in Japan under the sponsorship of their National Federation of UNESCO Association.

Finally, Mr Nhouyvanisvong hopes the government will protect Siem Reap, the town at Angkor, from the impact of tourism. There were 250,000 visitors this year, with a million expected by the year 2,000. This month the government signed a contract with the Malaysian company YLT Bhd for $20 million sound and light show at the temple, being written by an English production company. From January 1998 it will run three times a night, viewed from a 500 seat purpose built amphitheatre, attracting a further estimated 20,000 visitors a year.

UNESCO proposes that Siem Reap be declared a centre for arts and culture. “We don’t want a city just for tourists. We have to protect it,” said Mr Nhouyvanisvong.

A little known palace of art

Inaugurated on 3 November 1958, UNESCO House was built on a site previously occupied by a cavalry barracks to the rear of the Ecole Militaire. Plans for the new building were drawn up by Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss, and approved by an international panel whose members included Le Corbusier and Gropius. One hundred tons of concrete were used to construct the soaring portico which marks the entrance on the south-west facade. The main building, which is of Y-shaped form, houses the Secretariat and a large hall for temporary exhibitions. Inside the building there are murals by Picasso, Miro and Tamayo. The building houses a large collection of modern art some by leading twentieth-century artists including Calder, Giacometti and Henry Moore, as well as some pieces of more dubious artistic status such as a large group of works by Glazounov, including a portrait of former UNESCO Director General Mr M’Bow.