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U.S. ends 18-year abandonment of UNESCO


When President Bush announced at the United Nations that the United States was returning to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, it was a triumph for countless educational and religious groups who have protested America’s departure from that organization in 1984.

The Charter of UNESCO, established in 1945, opens with this incisive observation: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” To carry out this objective, UNESCO hopes to attain universal primary school enrollment and 90 percent adult literacy by the year 2015. UNESCO also emphasizes freedom of the press and dialogue between clashing cultures.

The reason for the abandonment of UNESCO by the United States was alleged maladministration of the agency. But the real reason was the disinterest of the Reagan administration in international cooperation. Bush’s announcement about America’s return to UNESCO anticipated action by Congress to return to the agency.

The 18-year absence of the United States from UNESCO caused a general increase in the dues of the other 188 member nations and a vast deterioration of the services that UNESCO could furnish. The budget now is about $400 million a year.

The Vatican has had a permanent observer status at UNESCO almost since its beginning. The Vatican is also a party to four UNESCO regional covenants. On May 10, Pope John Paul II warmly greeted friends of UNESCO in Rome on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Office of Permanent Observer of the Holy See to UNESCO.

The resumption of relations with UNESCO has to be said to signify a change in the disregard, if not the disdain, that America has had in recent years for the United Nations. The cost of UNESCO will be a miniscule 24 cents each year for every American.

The United States is increasingly perceived around the world as generally hostile to the United Nations. It withheld its dues from the United Nations for several years. The Bush administration is aggressively working against the recently established International Criminal Court, an agency that could be an effective way to deal with Saddam Hussein. The United States has walked away from the U.N. treaty on land mines, the Kyoto protocols on global warming, the law of the seas, which offers regulation and protection of the world’s oceans, and similar crucial issues. The United States has refused to ratify the U.N. Covenant on Economic Rights, even though 160 nations have now ratified it.

Why has the United States become so hostile to the United Nations? The United States more than any other country was author of the U.N. Charter and the proclamation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. America’s break with the United Nations began in the Eisenhower administration when the Congress made it clear that they would not tolerate any international evaluation of the racial situation in America. In later years, the United States ratified treaties against torture and racial discrimination but only with restrictive reservations that virtually nullified any new U.S. commitments to observe a higher standard of human rights.

American intellectuals and statesmen were among the principal architects of UNESCO. Its striking pledge to place the “defense of peace” in the minds of the human family expressed America’s most fundamental dreams and hopes in the early years after the tragedies of World War II and the Holocaust. Its 18-year absence from UNESCO has allowed the world’s illiteracy rate to increase and millions of children to be denied primary education.

Only broad-based, grassroots support for the objectives of UNESCO can begin to offer reparations for the 18-year walkout by the United States from what has to be described as one of the most beautiful aspirations of the human family in the 20th century.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002