By Barend ter Haar
, Clingendael Institute of International Relations.
In November 2013 the Netherlands hopes to be elected in UNESCO´s Executive Board. This would place the Netherlands in a good position to promote the urgently needed reform of the organization.
Among the general public UNESCO is best known for its work in the field of culture. Thanks to treaties such as the World Heritage Convention and The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict UNESCO is often described as “the cultural organization of the United Nations”. But UNESCO ´s mandate also includes education, science and communication!
We do not have to wait for the adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, to know that education and science will be crucial to reach these goals. Good education not only benefits individuals but also societies. Mothers that have received more schooling take better informed decisions about immunization and nutrition of their children. Education can make people aware of the importance of sustainable production and consumption, etc.
Science is essential to address global problems such as climate change and scarcity of water. To use the results of scientific research everywhere, education is needed everywhere.
As the specialized UN organization for education and science, UNESCO has great potential to promote international cooperation in these fields by convening the stakeholders and by promoting and facilitating their cooperation.
However, so far UNESCO has not taken up this challenge, except on a few topics such as oceanography. The Secretariat does useful work, also outside the field of culture, such as on educational statistics, on protecting journalists, on promoting Open Educational Resources and by promoting Man and Biosphere reserves and Geoparks, but often its rhetoric conceals that its “work programme” contains very little action. Take for example a Culture of Peace, proclaimed to be the first of UNESCO ‘s two “overarching objectives”. UNESCO officially adopted an “action programme for a Culture of Peace”, but on close scrutiny it turns out to be empty of concrete content (see: http://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/UNESCO-and-the-culture-of-peace.pdf).
Most nations have appointed Permanent Representatives to UNESCO, but they convene only for a few weeks every two years during the General Conference and even then the negotiations are focused on the work programme of the Secretariat instead of on the state of education, science, culture and communication in the world.
From time to time UNESCO convenes World Conferences on its subjects, but their effect is small because very little attention is given to their follow up.
In his first Speech From the Throne King Willem Alexander referred to the long tradition of international cooperation of the Netherlands. Based on that tradition and on a clear view on the global importance of education, science, culture and communication, Membership of UNESCO ´s Executive Board for a four year period will give the Netherlands a good chance, together with likeminded countries from all over the world, to let UNESCO fulfill its potential.
 Barend ter Haar was Netherlands ambassador to UNESCO from 2007 to 2011. This article only reflects his personal opinion.