Statement from Global Heritage Fund’s Chief Executive Officer, Stefaan Poortman, regarding the United States of America’s intention to withdraw from UNESCO.
At Global Heritage Fund, I work every day to save historic places and special sites throughout the world. That’s why I was disappointed to learn that the government of the United States has moved to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), effective December 31st, 2018. Although this move has been expected for some time, it is nonetheless a regretful setback to heritage conservation.
When UNESCO emerged out of the maelstrom of the Second World War as a force for promoting and protecting culture throughout the world, the United States lent its moral might to that mission. Through UNESCO, governments acknowledged that the destruction of cultural heritage was simultaneously the destruction of history and identity. Ever since, UNESCO and its constituent members have worked to protect heritage as a pillar of our shared, universal human identity.
The departure of the United States from UNESCO is a blow to these efforts. Before suspending its dues in 2011, the United States contributed nearly a quarter of UNESCO’s budget, a loss keenly felt at a time when we see public sector budgets for culture declining all over the world. American leadership in UNESCO was an olive branch to the world, a gesture of goodwill and respect to foreign peoples and their cultures. By leaving, the United States weakens the legitimacy of multilateral efforts to defend the world’s cultural heritage, encouraging others to abandon the diplomatic consensus it toiled to build.
As the CEO of Global Heritage Fund, I can only regret such a move. My years of experience in the heritage field have taught me that the success of our work depends on cooperation between governments, civil society, and the private sector. UNESCO has always served as a crucial partner in this balancing act. Whether offering expertise, exposure, or financial support, UNESCO has often been a bridge between Global Heritage Fund’s work and the wider world. It is no exaggeration to say that without the visibility and credibility partnerships with UNESCO provide, our work would not enjoy the success it does today.
Furthermore, I believe that the departure of the United States from UNESCO will make it harder to conserve our many threatened, special places. However, I am heartened by the words of Irina Bokova, Director–General of UNESCO:
I believe UNESCO’s work to advance literacy and quality education is shared by the American people.
I believe UNESCO’s action to harness new technologies to enhance learning is shared by the American people.
I believe UNESCO’s action to enhance scientific cooperation, for ocean sustainability, is shared by the American people.
I believe UNESCO’s action to promote freedom of expression, to defend the safety of journalists, is shared by the American people.
I believe UNESCO’s action to empower girls and women as change-makers, as peacebuilders, is shared by the American people.
I believe UNESCO’s action to bolster societies facing emergencies, disasters and conflicts is shared by the American people.
I echo her words with all the force my position and my organization holds. I hope you — our donors, friends, and fellow Americans — will prove her right. I ask that you stand with me as we affirm the truth that is in all our hearts: though our government may not carry this torch, we will never slacken our efforts to protect the world’s vulnerable cultural heritage from vanishing forever.