Founded in the aftermath of World War II, UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations, comprised of 195 member states (two more than make up the UN, since Palestine and the Cook Islands are UNESCO members). Its self-stated mission is to “contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture.”
The founders of UNESCO saw fostering education, science, and culture as a means to peace, not an end in and of itself. As war-weary countries began to grapple with the enormous damage done during World War II, they worked to develop organizations, including UNESCO, intended to generate international dialogue and mutual understanding, in the hopes of preventing such an atrocity from occurring again. The first line of UNESCO’s founding constitution, adopted on November 16, 1945, articulates this grandiose goal: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
It has pursued this mission through multiple means, supporting academic conferences and training journalists. Today, UNESCO supports programs including Holocaust and genocide education and literacy efforts for both children and adults.
Most famously, UNESCO administers the World Heritage List program, which identifies places (from man-made structures to natural locations) across the world that are of shared international and human importance for protection and preservation. There are 23 sites in the United States, including the Statue of Liberty. The United States remains a signatory of the international treaty underpinning the program, the World Heritage Convention, which was originally modeled off the U.S.’s National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
In addition to its programming, UNESCO’s current director general, Irina Bokova, has also been an outspoken critic of the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Syria and Mali, labeling them “war crimes.” We can credit UNESCO with making such cultural heritage destruction a major issue that reaches the front page of world newspapers, said Stefan Simon, Director of Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH).
The organization’s 1970 convention, titled “The Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property,” was ratified by 134 nations to date, including the United States.