When I was a young boy growing up in New York, the United Nations headquarters on the East Side was on my top-10 list of must-sees for relatives visiting the city. The idea that there was this place that worked to promote peace and justice seemed too cool to pass up. Even now, some 40 years later, I can still remember getting chills while standing at the back of the General Assembly.
When UNESCO hired me four years ago, I had to pinch myself. I was going to work for the U.N., but not just any part of the U.N. It was the agency that is the embodiment of the highest principles espoused by the U.N. system and by most Americans as well. What’s not to like about peace, justice, freedom of expression, preserving cultural heritage, education for all and access to scientific knowledge?
Fast-forward four years and I am bearing witness to a chain of events that threatens UNESCO and, by extension, American influence abroad. When the 193 nations that form UNESCO’s governing body voted to admit Palestine as a member state in October, the United States was obligated by law to cut off all funding to the organization.
This isn’t chump change for UNESCO. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the annual budget, or about $80 million a year.
But it is far less than the most conservative estimates for daily spending in Iraq in the months following the fall of Baghdad, which is where I worked until this fall. Two years after joining UNESCO, I volunteered to go to Iraq to be the officer in charge of the Baghdad office.
In the two years that I lived and worked in the Iraqi capital, I supported, promoted and managed a variety of programs that changed the lives of Iraqis for the better. They ranged from providing literacy and vocational education training to projects combating drought and others promoting freedom of expression and freedom of the press. All of this is now in jeopardy. U.S. funding for UNESCO directly or indirectly supports programs in Iraq that no American would find out of line with our own values and the aspirations that we would have for the Iraqi people.
And yet the cut in U.S. funds to UNESCO cuts us off from the Iraqis and from helping them to develop the democratic institutions that they need in order to emerge from years of dictatorship and war. An Iraq at peace with itself and with its neighbors is in our national interest.
As the last American soldiers prepare to leave Iraq, a U.S.-funded project to strengthen the judiciary and build the skills of reporters to report on the courts was eliminated because of a 21-year-old law that has outlived its usefulness.
A major conference on freedom of expression, right to information and Internet governance will likely not happen because the United States can no longer contribute to UNESCO.
Most Iraqis will tell you that they want to be part of the solution. They want their government to be accountable, and in that accountability, they expect basic services to be provided. They want their voices to be heard. They want a better life for their children. They want access to information that empowers them to chart a course for the future that will bring peace and prosperity.
Does any of this sound familiar? When America’s forefathers — men such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — declared independence and went to war for the freedoms that we not only revere but export, they did so because they simply wanted a say. They wanted to be heard. They wanted a fair shake, and they wanted to control their destiny.
We are a nation of laws, but also of common sense, and our sense of fairness is only rivaled, perhaps, by our capacity to adapt to new realities. A law that is no longer relevant threatens our security, undermines our national interest and relegates us to the bleachers when we have for so long been a leader on the world stage.
George Papagiannis was director of communications for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during the 105th Congress. After a stint as officer in charge of the UNESCO office in Baghdad, he now works on media development in post-conflict and post-disaster countries for the organization.