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UNESCO DNA & Reasons For Dismay

 “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed” (Attlee, 1945)


Founded in London on November 16, 1945, UNESCO  has remained “Poised between the impossible expectations of its charter and the abysmal realities it had to confront daily, an elusive hope bouncing in the wake of bipolar and multilateral conflict and confrontation, where poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance and underdevelopment had first claim on the minds of men in most parts of the world” (Preston, Herman and Schiller, 1989; Meskell, 2018).


There seems a case for further exploration, especially asking whether or not everyday aspects of culture and memorialisation in local communities have been overlooked in the pursuit of grander international interventions of culture and politics. There needs to be more understanding about the impact of regular encounters with post-conflict remainders and reminders of violence within ordinary run-of-the-mill spaces and places.

The fundamental decision-maker in the processes of addressing post-conflict cultural interventions within a peacebuilding process[1], namely, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Is an organisation with hefty objectives to “contribute to the building of a culture of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information” (, 2018).


Looking back to when the organisation began, it's helpful to understand why it was deemed necessary and by whom. Once that is understood it seems easier to reflect on how UNESCO perceived today.





In a world, reeling from massive post-war trauma[3], the United Nations was founded (October 1945), a month later[4], UNESCO was developed to help promote a new relationship among Nations, an affiliation based on the “exchange of education, culture and scientific research” (Brabyn, 1985). The British Prime Minister at the time, Sir Clement Attlee believed it would address a common global condition, which he describes as the, “[i]gnorance 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” and therefore “Wars begin in the minds of men” (Attlee, 1945; Huxley 2010, p5).


Aiming to unite the peoples of the world, UNESCO began its quest on the 16th of November 1945, in London two months and fourteen days after the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945, not long after the United States had dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing at 100,000 people”.


The surrender in the Far East officially ended World War II, although the war had ended in Europe three months earlier, after General Alfred Jodi, Chief-of-Staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, signed an unconditional surrender document in Reims, France (The Week, 2018).


London was central to the British and Allied war effort, it had become a sanctuary and home to many foreign allied government officials and influential refugees from all over the world, Brabyn explains that in his view, “UNESCO would almost certainly never come into being, at least in its present form, had it not been for the very special conditions that existed in London during the Second World War. With great tracts of Europe occupied by Axis forces, Britain’s bomb-scared capital was the temporary home of seven Allied Government-in-exile and of General de Gaulle’s Free French Committee, of statesmen, diplomats and generals, of intellectuals and refugees and of ordinary men and women come from all corners of the earth to fight for freedom. It was a microcosm of the world in ferment” (Brabyn, 1985).


This of course wasn’t the first time ‘the world was in ferment’, twenty-one years earlier, "[t]he war to end all wars"[5] World War I (WW1) came to an end in 1918, and there has been countless wars and peace agreements before that. An aspect of humanity’s past that Lopès [6] alludes to when he wrote his editorial in UNESCO’s journal ‘The Courier’ celebrating the thirty-eighth anniversary of UNECO’s ‘birth of an idea’, explaining that, “the desire for peace is just as ancient as the instinct to destroy and the vision of a united planet has haunted mankind long before it assumed definite shape at a conference in London in 1945 when men and governments decided to give it a new meaning” (Birth of an Idea, 1985).


This 'new meaning', seems to have take shape twenty years earlier, after the devastation and reflection of WW1. It was before, during and after WW1, that the foundations of UNESCO’s mindset/meaning appears to have been established, at least in a global sense. Winter posits that “both war and the peace that followed have marked out our world in indelible ways” (Winter, 2014). Perhaps by the sheer global scale of the conflict, as Becker suggests, “[t]he Great War was a total, global tragedy: its setting, the entire world; its duration,1914–18; its main feature, mass violence. From the very beginning, the British, French, German and Belgian governments made the war global by pulling the inhabitants and resources of their empires into it” (Becker, 2015). Although the scale and global nature of this war was like no other for Winter it was the way the war had, “obliterated the distinction between civilian and military targets”, which is understandable when you consider that “Invasions, occupations, atrocities, deportations and massacres of civilians kept pace with the radicalization of the fighting on the battlefield” (Becker, 2015).


However, there were other significant reminders too, after all, one has only to read the history of the Mongols under Genghis Khan (1162-1227), Japan’s invasion of China, Korea and the Philippines in the 17th Century to understand the cruel truth that civilian and military distinctions have been blurred and prolific throughout history, as Slim put it, “civilian suffering is to war what rain is to a thunderstorm” (Slim, 2007). The Great War appears more significant to the origins of UNESCO’s ‘new meaning’, perhaps it began in the wake of a gruesome combination of Europe’s first genocide, when more than a million Armenian people died in Turkey, after the creation of massive intercamp all over Europe, the horrific treatment of the Jews in Galicia by the Russian army, the wholescale artillery destruction of cities, the German Naval warfare against civilian shipping and the Allied blockages of European ports (Imperial War Museums, 2018; Winter, 2014). 


The war was terrifying in its modernised brutality[7] but also its industrial efficiency, in four years of conflict there were 65,038,810 troops mobilised, 57.5% of them were lost (37,468,904 casualties), 8,500,000 soldiers died as a result of wounds or disease. There were also 13,000,000 civilian deaths which were largely caused by starvation, exposure, disease, military encounters, and massacres (Zabecki, 2018; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018)[8].  The industrialising world with all its advances in technology, education and experimentation for the good of mankind had also provided the potential to decimate it too. At the same time, the ‘space rocket’ is patented World War 1 begins. Collaboration, communication and respect for the world’s science, education and culture became a crucial consideration for world leaders and it is here that UNESCO’s mindset begins to surface. Winter explains that “[a]merican and European perceptions of the world order in the 20th and 21st centuries is incomprehensible without considering the catastrophe of 1914-18” (Winter, 2014)


In Geneva 1922 the first of UNESCO’s predecessors was founded, the International Committee of Intellectual Co-operation (CICI) was developed as an advisory organization for the League of Nations[9] containing influential figures such as counted such figures as Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, among its members and which aimed to promote international exchange between scientists, researchers, teachers, artists and intellectuals. Three years later the International Bureau of Education (IBE) followed, founded in Geneva it was an independent organization of thinkers, scholars and scientists who later joined UNESCO in 1947 to help develop its educational programmes (Brabyn, 1985; UNESCO, 2018).


Despite suffering political and financial challenges these organisations, established an important framework dealing with, “relations between universities and scientific unions, conditions of intellectual labour, traditions and the exchange of literary works between nations, museums and artistic relations and information with the press and other media” (Brabyn, 1985). However, it wasn’t until the all-engulfing Second World War, that these frameworks for intellectual collaboration evolved and gathered impetus in the shape of UNESCO  


During the Second World War, the impetus gathered pace when the governments of the European countries, which were confronting Nazi Germany and its allies, met in London for the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME), three years of collaboration later and with the important inclusion of the United States of America, UNESCO was proposed. Amidst the complicated practicalities and emotions of wartime victory and loss, UNESCO was founded in the presence of forty-four countries eager to create an organisation to promote the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind” in the hope that such an organisation would help prevent another world war (, 2018). A gathering of nations with a chief objective to promote support and universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms expressed in the Charter of The United Nations (Pavone, 2008), moreover, it was as Meskell notes, “an international body for education and cultural cooperation under the aegis of the United Nations. Their project was no less than the intellectual and moral reconstruction of a world in ruins” (Meskell, 2018).


A welcomed project which would slowly become a controversial and contemptuous one, for many it was and still is, a legitimate international peacebuilding tool that supports a liberal democratic peace based on, collective security, international cooperation with regard to economic markets, human rights and the rule of law. A global condition that acknowledges that “we are to live in a world of democracies, where the mind of the common man will be all-important” (Attlee, 1947).  For others, it has (like the United Nations in general) grown to characterise an alliance “forged in the twilight of empire and led by victors of war and major colonizing powers”, believing that the UN and its organisations like UNESCO’ were founded to expand their founder's global influence, “through the last gasps of the civilizing mission” [10] (Hazard, Laves and Thomson, 1959). An expansion, which Conversi has referred to as being negatively influenced by a “modernist rhetoric of progress, development and uplift” (Conversi, 2012). 


Criticism of UNESCO’s approach and ambitions could have surfaced (in part),as reaction to Julian Huxley’s policy writings and his interpretation of Prime Minister 1945-51, Sir Clement Attlee’s wise words “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed” and  “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” (Huxley 2010, p5). Huxley, the first Director of UNESCO wrote policy literature published as pamphlets and reproduced in many guises, eventually presented as a publication by UNESCO. A controversial publication, UNESCO, Its Purpose and Its Philosophy had “aroused impassioned but constructive controversy at the time” (, 2018). Huxley states that the fledgling organisation should “[f]oster and promote all aspects of education, science and culture in the widest sense of the words” and that “[i]ts main concern is with peace and security and with human welfare”, he continues explaining that “Nor with its stress on democracy and the principles of human dignity, equality and mutual respect, can it adopt the view that the State is higher or more important end than the individual; or any rigid class theory of society” (Huxley 1947, 2010. P7) and indeed Duedhal concurs suggesting that “One of the first goals proclaimed by UNESCO was to cultivate “unity in diversity” to achieve a better cross-cultural relationship and cooperation between diverse human communities” (Duedahl, 2016).


Ominously, later in his writings, Huxley’s theory appears to become a little more divisive,  after quoting passages from the bible, Huxley begins to lay out an argument for a single world governance,  that the more united man’s traditions become, the more rapid will the possibility of progress, he states that, “It must be envisaged some form of world political unity, whether through a single world government or otherwise, as the only certain means for avoiding war”  and that more specifically, “in its educational programme, it can stress the ultimate need for world political unity and familiarise all people with the implications of the transfer of full sovereignty from separate nations to a world organisation. But, more generally, it can do a great deal to lay the foundations on which world political unity can later be built” (Huxley 1947, 2010). Huxley’s founding notions on” full world unity” (Huxley 1947, p17), were beginning to reiterate elements of that ‘civilizing mission’ which, was an extension of a particular set of liberal values to the rest of the world through a kind of tutelage. “These values included liberation from tyranny, slavery and feudalism; economic productivity; a belief in science and progress; hygiene and medicine; private property; and anti-clericalism” (Conklin, 2003).


To critics like Arnold Toynbee[11], Huxley’s ‘ One World Unity’ must have seemed to suggest, a Western-centric international order, a sense which must have been reinforced by the weight of involvement by the United States of America. The ‘Marshall Plan’(officially the European Recovery Program, ERP) was, “an initiative to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $12 billion (nearly $100 billion in 2016 US dollars) in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II” (, 2018) which followed the impactful way in which the United States of America was instrumental in the establishment of the UN and of UNESCO’s raison d'être, from the very start.


At the meeting that brought about UNESCO, the United States was represented by a large delegation which included the likes of J. William Fulbright and Archibald MacLeish who arrived at the conference in London already with a fully formed proposal inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt's conviction that “civilisation is not national - It's international”.  A proposal in tune with the agenda proposed by President Harry S Truman, who stressed at the launch of the United Nations in San Francisco, “the importance of a new international commitment to culture and education” (Betts, 2015). The plan was for the “United Nations Organisation for Education and Cultural Reconstruction”, a pitch without a science component. After the insistence of the UK and China and with the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima still fresh in the minds of the delegates, was redeveloped to include ‘scientific research’ and became UNESCO (Brabyn, 1985). It seemed that UNESCO would be an organisation, “from the west to the rest” (Meskell, 2018).


The criticism of the UN and UNESCO is important regarding my interests ‘how important is it for the peacebuilding establishment to acknowledge the impact of large scale cultural interventions. Are local everyday aspects of traumatic memory a factor in building a sustainable peacebuilding and reconciliation progress’? It seems, in the light of such criticism, the acknowledgement of, and engagement with, the local everyday aspects of communities and people struggling from traumatic upheaval would give a much-needed nuanced approach to the UN and UNESCO’s dealings with post-conflict peacebuilding conditions.


Dag Mammarskjold explains that UNESCO was created “not to bring us to heaven but in order to save us from hell” and Rolland Paris explains that the theory behind the UN and liberalization is the potential remedy to ‘social ills’ in other words, violence, poverty, famine, corruption and environmental destruction. However, it is Newman’s comment that resonates, he suggests that peacebuilding is a ‘top-down’ elite, ethnocentric and Western-style formulaic processes that give little thought to the local context of religious values and the historical, regional, and cultural norms (Newman 2009). A criticism that has evolved to a point where, “archaeologists, like many other scholars, have no great admiration for the organization and are more likely to summarily dismiss, misrepresent, or criticize UNESCO and its World Heritage list than to acknowledge its achievements” (Meskell, 2018), earning the organisation a reputation of  “people protecting places” where technological grand scale solutions continue to be a privilege in the face of its fading capability to confront the social and political context of conflict, Meskell suggests that UNESCO’s ‘uniting for heritage’ has become “a slogan that similar attempts to save sites while human survival in those self-same places is parlous and conditions are inhuman” (Meskell, 2018). For UNESCO the management of memory seems to mean things rather than people, which seems to be an important oversite with regards to developing a positive post-conflict sense of place.


If everyday people of post-conflict communities are not helped to acknowledge their suffering and archaeological sites are given precedence over local people and their precarious sense of place. It is easy to imagine how trust, respect and belief in the United Nations and UNESCO’s peacebuilding processes could be undermined. An example[12] where this seems to be the case is the reconstruction of Mostar Bridge (Stari Most meaning the old bridge) which was rebuilt after being destroyed on the 9th of November 1993, during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A peacebuilding initiative by the international community to support reconciliation and improve social cohesion after the end of the war, “[t]he World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the World Monuments Fund formed a coalition to oversee the reconstruction of the Stari Most and the historic city centre of Mostar” (Hannah, Armaly and Blasi, 2004). The bridge was reopened with great international acclaim, the Director-General of UNESCO at the time, Koïchiro Matsuura stated at the opening "We are present in Mostar in order to breathe fresh life into an exceptional heritage which, after having been used as a target, needs to become a rallying sign, a sign of recognition, the powerful symbol of a plural identity founded on mutual trust" (Sopova, 2004). However, an article in the Guardian Newspaper, ‘Bridge opens but Mostar remains a divided city’, gives another perspective where "[t]he life of ordinary people on this artificially divided space has become absurd," said a report by the international authority running Bosnia last December 2004. "The situation is unacceptable and unsustainable" (Traynor, 2004). A situation which reiterates Meskell’s observation that “international staging has at times, papered over the smouldering religious and ethnic tensions”, and that there is an inherent danger in believing that reconstruction brings about reconciliation (Meskell, 2018).


The ‘Stari Most’ Project is an interesting example, it highlights how ineffective, and complicated UNESCO’s role has become. The organisation which began as a globally orientated establishment seems to have gradually lost influence and momentum. It has publicly suffered politically and economically over the years wrestling international aspirations and national agendas on the ground. For Irish, UNESCO’s problems becoming perilous, he writes, “[t]oo little cash, too much politics, leaves UNESCO fighting for life” believing that with the loss of an annual $80 million from the United States after leaving the organisation with Israel over the UNESCO vote to admit Palestine (Irish, 2017). A complicated situation, which Meskell acknowledges, explaining that, “UNESCO was transformed into an intergovernmental agency, a mere shadow of its former ambition for world peace and mutual understanding between peoples” and that “the overreach of powerful governments has come to permeate all aspects of its functioning” (Meskell, 2018).  


A possible example of ‘permeated functioning’, where UNESCO’s validity has become compromised or where its authenticity has been seen to struggle, is in the Middle East. A region where the organisation, “appeared to fail or be indifferent to, the protection of Iraq’s National Museum” after the fall of the Baathist regime and during the US-led occupation of the country in 2003 (Stone, 2009).  Similar contradictions to UNESCO’s founding ethos can be read in the failure to protect major historic sites in the county when, “[c]oalition forces that deployed and damaged major heritage sites to build military bases, including the archaeologist site of Babylon with its famous ziggurat and Ishtar Gate – ascribed on UNESCO’s tensive list 2003”. An important third millennium -BC UNESCO recognised site, which was renamed during the campaign, ‘Camp Alpha’. Stone continues to highlight the issue by writing that in 2005, there was, “[l]ooting and damage by British and American forces - the deliberate destruction of many important sites of Islamic heritage”. The coalition forces continued to damage culturally significant property that year when “coalition forces used part of the ninth century Great Mosque of Samarra to construct military barracks and a training camp for 1500 Iraqi national police” (Stone, 2009). These hypocritical situations were not restricted to Iraq and can be read in regions like Saudi Arabia, a nation that Joined UNESCO in November 1946. Where, according to articles by Power and McKernan, government contractors in Saudi Arabia have been demolishing artefacts in and around Mecca, a world-significant site, which is not listed by UNESCO. Both Power and McKernan report that “columns around Kaaba were demolished in 2014 Saudi Arabia” (McKernan, 2018), and that “ a large number of historic mosques, mausoleums and monuments have been razed to the ground to make way for skyscrapers and shopping malls - 1998 Saudi Arabian government bulldozed and burned down the tomb of Aminah, the mother of Mohammed” (POWER, 2014).


In light of these apparent international elite or governmental driven inconsistences witnessed in the Middle East and the apparent oversight with regards to the importance of a community’s, everyday relationship with memories of violence, thus developing a precarious sense of place after conflict which the Mostar Bridge example seems to indicate  It is likely that local people in post-conflict communities feel uncertain, finding it difficult to trust UNESCO’s sincerity and reasoning behind its objectives with regards any future peacebuilding processes in their community.


However, through engagement with the post-conflict communities in the Middle East UNESCO wants to resurface as a credible peacebuilding entity. In September 2018, UNESCO’s director general said, that UNESCO would “use the reconstruction of Iraq’s second city Mosul to restore its credibility and show how a fraying multilateral order can be revived” (Irish, 2018). A disconcerting message, which resurfaces past fears that UNESCO might yet again prioritise international posturing and image building at the expense of a fully focused and committed approach to a supremely complicated urban condition, still smouldering with social anger, fear and disorientation. According to Irish, “Azoulay has sought to refocus the agency on its fundamentals, with Mosul’s reconstruction at the centre of that effort” and in doing so has stated that the organisation and the Iraqi government will identify key restoration projects such as the city’s market, the central library at its university, two churches and a Yazidi temple, with its biggest consideration “funded with $50 million from the United Arab” levelled at the reconstruction of “the Grand al-Nuri Mosque, famous for its eight-century-old leaning minaret, which was blown up by Islamic State militants” (Irish, 2018). On the face of it, this sounds very much like the top-down, technological grand-scale solutions and a continuation of an approach that privileges ‘sites’ in the face of a fading capacity to confront the social and political context of an urban context in turmoil. An approach that amplifies the suspicion that Attlee's comment seems to have beguiled UNESCO since its conception, yes “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed” (Attlee, 1945). However, the reality might simply be, that peace must be constructed with war in mind, not the war which has been, rather, the war that remains and continues to be fought daily, in the minds of the local people involved.




This paper has explored a little bit of UNESCO. An organisation that is an important international organisation which addresses post-conflict memorialisation and reconstruction. I offer a modest analysis that might help give purchase to further reflection processes which asks, how important is it for the peacebuilding establishment to acknowledge the impact large scale cultural interventions, and the local everyday aspects of traumatic memory might have on maintaining peacebuilding and reconciliation processes?


The text began by examining the origins of UNESCO and found that it began theoretically at least in reaction to the Great War and its global impact. The text shows where it officially began and in what context, revealing that it was founded in a bruised and battered Nation’s capital by resident and exiled or relocated foreign government officials and refugees suffering from years of traumatic stress, loss and buoyed or perhaps intoxicated by victory and relief.  It began with high expectations and ambitious intentions which began to address a war-ravished Europe and later set its sights on the rest of the world.


Despite its great potential it began to unravel possibly owing to an assumption that their way was to best way and only way. Promoting policy, and theory, that implied a new world order or a one-world unity with universal values and beliefs in what was deemed worthy of listing and protection (and what wouldn’t). The organisation seems to suffer from political infighting and poor decisions that saw it move from a global interest to an intergovernmental practice showing signs of duplicity and a hypocritical approach to sites in areas like Iraq and Saudi Arabia.


UNESCO has been greatly effective in many areas, however, in a post-conflict context it has been seen to struggle the most. Some have said it is because it is an elite, top-down mechanism promoting global democracy and liberal values, that it has prioritised scientific approaches to archaeological sites and culturally significant buildings without giving enough thought to the local condition and their right to self-determination.   


There seems to be a case for further exploration, especially asking whether or not everyday aspects of memorialisation in local communities have been overlooked in the pursuit of grander international statements of culture and politics. There needs to be more understanding about the impact of regular encounters with post-conflict remainders and reminders of violence hosted by ordinary run-of-the-mill spaces and places.


A condition heavily influenced by a daily routine of life permeated by memories of violence must be re-evaluated when developing an effective approach to post-conflict peacebuilding and sites of cultural significance.



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[1] The phrase ‘peacebuilding establishment’ encompasses all aspects of peacebuilding recognised by the United Nations charters and local authorities engaged in peacebuilding efforts both from a practically and a scholarly perspective. 

[2] The paper uses the phrase ‘New War’ as defined in Mary Kaldor’s book ‘New & old wars’ (Kaldor, 2013)

[3] For further information and an introduction on WWII Trauma please refer to The Politics of War Trauma by Jolande Withuis & Annet Mooij (Eds.)

[4] October 24th is United Nations day. In 1945 representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization to draw up the United Nations Charter. A replacement for Woodrow Wilson's struggling League of Nations, the UN was established after World War II, with the aim of avoiding another such war. The UN became an intergovernmental organization with 51 State members which has since grown to 193 members. (, 2018)

[5] "The war to end all wars" was a slightly altered reiteration of H.G Wells book entitled ‘The War That Will End War’ in 1914.

[6] Mr. Henri Lopès was Prime Minister of Congo-Brazzaville from 1973 to 1975 and UNESCO’S Assistance Director 1981-98

[7] The new inventions such as, rapid-fire field artillery gun, the modern machine gun, fighting planes, chemical weapons, long-range missiles, tanks and flamethrowers (Kerr, 2014).

[8] As reported by the U.S. War Department in February 1924. U.S. casualties as amended by the Statistical Services Center, Office of the Secretary of Defence, Nov. 7, 1957.

[9] At the end of the First World War’s and as a result of the Paris Pease Conference on 10 January 1920, the League of Nations was developed as an intergovernmental organisation later to become the United Nations. it was founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. (It was the first international organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace) (Tomuschat, 1996).

[10] The term "civilizing mission" was an extension of a particular set of liberal values to the rest of the world through a kind of tutelage. “These values included liberation from tyranny, slavery and feudalism; economic productivity; a belief in science and progress; hygiene and medicine; private property; and anti- clericalism” (Conklin, 2003)

[11] For further information with regards Toynbee’s theories please refer to, Professor Toynbee, "The West," And the World by Douglas Jerrold, 1954

[12] There are two other examples of note:  Long Kesh / Maze Prison, Northern Ireland and Beit Beirut Museum and Urban Centre, Lebanon


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