UNESCO’s humanitarian horizons

The year 2020 is rich in anniversaries that bring to mind, without exaggeration, the fateful events of modern times. Among them, the end of the bloodiest and largest war in history, World War II, and the subsequent creation of a modern international order reflected in the leading international institutions’ statutory documents. The UN is responsible for maintaining political stability, whereas UNESCO, which is also celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is the moral compass in the post-war world that outlines the international community’s intellectual trajectory.

The UNESCO Constitution was signed in London on November 16, 1945. However, only after the Soviet Union acceded on April 21, 1954 did UNESCO’s activities take on a global reach, and the noble mission of constructing “the defences of peace” in “the minds of men,” which has remained relevant up until this day, received universal recognition and legitimacy.

UNESCO is highly respected in our country. The Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO, which unites the heads of the relevant Russian ministries and departments, prominent figures in education, science, culture and journalism, as well as representatives of creative and business communities, carries out a significant amount of work to promote and popularise the organisation’s high moral principles and values.

Our decades-long cooperation with UNESCO is an example of a mutually respectful and mutually enriching partnership as evidenced by the outcomes of President Putin’s meeting with UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in Moscow in 2019.

Russia is an undisputed leader when it comes to the number of UNESCO Associated schools and chairs. We maintain leading positions in oceanography, hydrology, Earth sciences, bioethics and artificial intelligence. The organisation’s scientific prestige is further enhanced by the UNESCO-Russia Mendeleev International Prize in the Basic Sciences established in observance of the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements (2019) and a PhosAgro/UNESCO/IUPAC grant programme in green chemistry.

Russia takes part in UNESCO sports and anti-doping programmes, including the promotion of the Kazan Action Plan developed in our country at the international level.

Cultural cooperation is expanding dynamically. International Jazz Day was successfully held in St Petersburg in 2018, with the participation of Audrey Azoulay. In 2019, the 30th Russian category, “Temples of the Pskov School of Architecture” was added to the World Heritage List. In 2022, the capital of Tatarstan will host the anniversary session of the World Heritage Committee timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

As one of the largest donors and a top-level member of the governing, and most subsidiary bodies of UNESCO, Russia supports the Director-General’s initiative for the “strategic transformation” of the organisation, which is aimed at increasing the institution’s efficiency and adapting it to new realities. It appears that the systematic strengthening of the UNESCO programme profile is the key to this, provided that the intergovernmental nature and the “division of labour” established by the UN system is strictly observed.

Reducing the degree of politicising UNESCO, which hinders its effectiveness, is in the member states’ common interest. It is necessary to exclude from the agenda the issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty that are not typical for the organisation, to take off the table the very possibility of settling problems between states through this international forum’s platform. The ongoing attempts to promote, within UNESCO, politically engaged and opportunistic projects formed in the spirit of the notorious concept of a “rules-based order” that contradict the organisation’s traditional principles of consensus, inclusiveness and dialogue are unfortunate.

At the same time, despite its inherent “softness.” UNESCO should at times show its firm character. The organisation cannot remain in the shadows in situations involving gross violations of its high principles and ideals. In particular, this includes reprehensible topics such as restrictions in the educational space in Ukraine and Latvia on the Russian language, as well as instances of restricting freedom of speech and pressure on the Russian media in the Baltic states and a number of Western states. Finally, the international community, led by UNESCO, should take effective measures to restore the world heritage sites in Syria that have suffered from the hands of terrorists. Russia is willing to contribute to this in every possible way.

Throughout its history, UNESCO has on many occasions brilliantly overcome various political and financial challenges. After it overcame the protracted budget nosedive caused by refusal to “pay the bills” by certain  states that had left the organisation, the institution is now faced with a fundamentally new challenge – the coronavirus pandemic – which has dealt a tangible blow to all areas of UNESCO’s competence. I have no doubt that this challenging stage will also be overcome with dignity, and UNESCO will stay on course towards building a world based on the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.”

Sergey Lavrov, President of the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO,
Foreign Minister of Russia