The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) came into force on November 4, 1946. The international treaty creating the group had been signed earlier, but it became operational with ratification by 20 countries. It is noteworthy in conservation for its protection of World Heritage Sites.
Near the end of World War 2, European nations began to plan for the reconstruction of the institutions impacted by the Axis occupation of much of the continent. Their chief initial concerns were to re-establish schools and universities—and assuring that wartime history would be recorded and taught objectively (for example, UNESCO operates a program to teach the history of the Holocaust). As the war ended, 37 countries convened in London and agreed to the UNESCO Constitution, citing that “ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war.” Since then, the number of member countries has risen to 195.
The ideals of encouraging education and common understanding of culture have yielded great benefit, but also ongoing controversy. The United States quit the organization in 1984 under President Reagan, rejoined in 2002 under President George W. Bush, stopped making annual payments in 2011 (accumulating a $550 million debt) and announced in late 2017 plans to quit again. Much of the U.S. ambivalence to UNESCO involves issues over its treatment of Israeli interests.
For conservationists, however, the centerpiece of UNESCO is the list of World Heritage properties. In a separate convention enacted on July 12, 1973, the organization recognized a global need to identify and conserve important cultural and natural resources. Today, 167 countries are party to the convention, which requires member states to propose sites for inclusion on the list, assure that designated sites will be protected and recognize that although sites may be within a single country, they represent a resource for the entire world.
UNESCO lists 1073 World Heritage properties. The vast majority (about 78%) are cultural resources and about half of those sites are in Europe. About 20% of the listed sites are natural, and 2% are mixed cultural and natural sites; natural sites are more equally spread across the world, but still with greater number in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The U.S. has 23 sites on the list, about half cultural and half natural. All of the natural sites are also national parks—Yellowstone (one of the original eight sites), Yosemite, Everglades, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Carlsbad, Hawaii Volcanoes, Wrangell-St. Elias, Mammoth Cave, Olympic, and Redwood.
The list also identifies sites that, although protected, are in danger. Fifty-four sites are in danger, 16 of which are natural sites. Eleven endangered sites are in Africa, and one is in the United State—Everglades National Park.
Rosenberg, Eli and Carol Morello. 2017. U.S. withdraws from UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization, citing anti-Israel bias. The Washington Post, October 12, 2017. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/10/12/u-s-withdraws-from-unesco-the-u-n-s-cultural-organization-citing-anti-israel-bias/?utm_term=.adc9fff6f2bd. Accessed November 3, 2017.
UNESCO. The Organization’s history. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/about-us/who-we-are/history/. Accessed November 3, 2017.
UNESCO. UNESCO Constitution. Available at: http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15244&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. Accessed November 3, 2017.
UNESCO. World Heritage List: United States of America. Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/us. Accessed November 3, 2017.