Unesco, the controversial custodian of culture

PARIS

Unesco on Friday was to pick its new head after a cliffhanger election that came as the US and Israel announced plans to withdraw from the troubled UN cultural body.

The sprawling Paris-based agency was founded in 1945 when the United Nations was created to prevent another world war.

The organisation has seen its share of controversy over the past seven decades.

Here are four facts about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco):

195 countries

Unesco, which currently has 195 members, says it aims to build peace through education, science, culture and communication.

It is best known for its prestigious World Heritage List of outstanding cultural and natural sites.

Unesco also promotes the right to education for all, sustainable development and efforts to tackle social and ethical issues — particularly in Africa.

Heritage sites

The constantly evolving World Heritage List currently runs to 1,073 cultural and natural sites considered to be of universal value.

Among the most well-known are the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, the Old City of Jerusalem, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Unesco also currently has 54 sites on its list of World Heritage in Danger, including national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are under threat from war, and the fabled Malian desert town of Timbuktu.

Controversy

In 2011 US president Barack Obama suspended funding for Unesco — about 22 per cent of its annual budget — for accepting Palestine as a member.

The Jewish state and its ally oppose any move by UN bodies to recognise the Palestinian territories as a state, saying the matter can be resolved only in a negotiated Middle East peace deal.

In the years since, Unesco has been the scene of several flare-ups over Arab-sponsored resolutions critical of Israel.

In May, Israel was infuriated by a resolution identifying it as “the occupying power” in the disputed city of Jerusalem.

In July, the UN body declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered World Heritage site, further angering Israel while delighting Palestinians.

Former president Ronald Reagan first withdrew the US from Unesco in 1984, accusing it of anti-Americanism and corruption. Washington reclaimed its seat in 2002, under George W. Bush.

Apartheid South Africa also spurned Unesco. The country returned in 1994, only after Nelson Mandela became leader.

Massive monument rescue

Unesco spearheaded a 1960s campaign to save the 3,000-year-old temples of ancient Nubia, which were threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam.

A multinational team of archaeologists, engineers and heavy equipment operators dismantled the Abu Simbel temples block by block and reassembled them out of harm’s way at a cost of $300 million dollars in 2017 (Sh30.96 billion).

The mammoth project drew international attention to the value of safeguarding cultural heritage.

A year after it was listed as a world heritage site by a United Nations agency, Lake Bogoria continues to be a scene to behold by both local and international visitors.

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