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Diplomacy in Action: the U.S., UNESCO and Civil Society

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Recent events in the Middle East have shown that civil society can bring about big change in the world. The people of Egypt were able to revolutionize their government in only 18 days and civil society groups are increasingly using emerging technologies to connect to one another and make their voices heard. I recently had a wonderful opportunity to interview Ambassador David T. Killion, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

2011-02-25-amb_killion_184th_eb_500.jpgUNESCO is a unique organization that engages civil society and, "contributes to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information."

At a recent event Secretary Clinton recognized the important role that activists and nongovernmental organizations play, saying that "international relations are not just about ties between governments. They're increasingly about the links between societies." Egyptian Activist Sherif Mansour reiterated this by saying, "... this is a change that can only [be] attributed to people in Egypt and Tunisia who proved that ultimately, civil society is a change-maker and the permanent partners for the U.S. in the long run." Here's how UNESCO fits into the picture:

Kraus: Ambassador Killion, it's a pleasure to speak with you. Democracy and other core human values have motivated activists in many nations around the world today to speak out. Earlier this week Secretary Hilary Clinton launched the first-ever "Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society" that brought together thousands of citizens from virtually every continent who work on education, democracy promotion, the environment and many other issues that improve life in their nations and around the world. It seems to me that this is very consistent with the tradition of UNESCO, which since its founding in 1945 has believed that governments must have effective partnerships with civil society organizations to achieve strategic goals. Can you tell us how this works and which civil society groups the U.S. partners with as it participates in UNESCO?

Killion: Thanks, Don. You're absolutely right that the Secretary's "Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society" is an initiative that gives voice to so many concerned members of our global community. It enables us to listen, engage and act not only internationally, but across our government. Over the next 18 months, officials from the State Department and bipartisan officials from Congress will meet with small, targeted groups of global civil society leaders focusing on areas such as Democracy and Human Rights, Governance and Accountability and Empowerment of Women. These groups, working together, will identify areas for cooperation and concrete initiatives to advance multilateral cooperation. In addition, the secretary will chair strategic dialogue sessions as she travels, focusing on bilateral issues and civil society groups specific to the host country, in advance of the Vilnius Ministerial Meeting of the Community of Democracies on June 30.

From its inception, UNESCO has worked hand-in-hand with civil society to effect change and promote peace. UNESCO helps legitimize and strengthen global civil society by engaging scientists, teachers, architects and engineers in UNESCO planning and its field work. The U.S. mission to UNESCO includes a National Committee made up of over 100 members of civil society, representing groups such as the Boys' and Girls' Clubs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the Institute for International Education, the Library of Congress and NGOs such as Vital Voices, to help guide us on critical issues. In addition, we have supported initiatives through the Smithsonian Institution aimed at protecting cultural heritage worldwide, and educating local citizens on preservation techniques. They are our panel of experts from some of the most influential institutions around the world, and serve as a resource and an essential "ear to the ground."

Kraus: UNESCO advances U.S. interests through a variety of programs that defend press freedom and build independent media; freshwater management; protecting natural and cultural heritage; and promote basic education and literacy. How well is the organization getting the job done? Could you share some examples?

Killion: UNESCO is doing an excellent job at "getting the job done" in these important areas, and I'm very proud of the role the U.S. plays in helping make that happen. Let me discuss some concrete ways that UNESCO makes a difference.

Not everyone realizes that UNESCO is the only UN agency with a specific mandate to promote freedom of expression. UNESCO consistently speaks out against the killing and persecution of journalists, raising awareness and defending independent media worldwide. It also it supports hundreds of community-based media programs around the world, providing an essential counterweight to governments who attempt to suppress or control media. UNESCO runs on-site capacity-building workshops for journalists who work in such conflict zones as Southern Sudan, Haiti, Kosovo and Afghanistan, emphasizing their responsibilities and role as the public's eyes, ears and conscience. It also supports active media monitoring projects in the Andean region to observe the rights of journalists, and helps develop community radio stations in Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda, some of which are particularly aimed at students and tribal minorities. These programs not only reinforce essential skills, but also give a critical outlet to diverse points of view, ensuring that the public has options for getting the information they need to make decisions about their leaders. A better-trained media raises informed awareness of issues like social injustice, peace-building and national priorities - which can help create unity and cohesion while making room for healthy, open debate within countries and regions, and helping make leaders accountable to their people.

The U.S. has the honor this year to host UNESCO's annual World Press Freedom Day Commemoration, which will be held May 1-3 in Washington, D.C. This year's commemoration addresses freedom of expression through its theme, "21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers," and will address the rights, roles and responsibilities of social media in citizen-based journalism. The United States, from its creation, has been a haven and a torch-bearer for freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and through our membership with UNESCO, we have been able to further our commitment through contributions and advocacy.

Another key area where UNESCO is quite active is science. "Science diplomacy" may sound odd to some, but it is a very effective way to help promote cooperation and technological advancements worldwide. Our nation's top scientists and engineers have a forum through UNESCO which helps them forge connections with colleagues around the world in support of projects to improve access to clean water for billions of people, monitor and predict changes in the world's oceans and waterways, and protect countries by developing better, faster tsunami warning and mitigation systems. The teamwork on this level never ceases to amaze me. UNESCO has a great young American on its staff, Casey Walther, also known as "the water guy," who is helping make "science diplomacy" a reality by working with over 17 different organizations and the Government of Iraq to simultaneously improve the sustainability of clean water, provide better training for local officials and preserve critical marshland reserves.

UNESCO is also directly involved in building science knowledge and capacity around the world, especially in developing countries. For instance, UNESCO is currently assisting the Iraq government in drafting and implementing a science and technology policy, and has recently launched a program with Nature Publishing Group to create free, high-quality, online education resources in the life and physical sciences for secondary and university level students around the world.

Kraus: Ambassador, speaking with you I cannot help but think back to September 12, 2002, when President George W. Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly and announced his intention for the United States to return to UNESCO, ending nearly a twenty-year absence from the organization. He said, "As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO. This organization has been reformed and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning." We worked together back then to ensure that the U.S. could indeed rejoin. You were a Hill staffer working for Congressman Tom Lantos on the House International Affairs Committee, working to secure the funding for the U.S. take its place as a UNESCO member nation. Now you represent your nation at UNESCO. Are you still pleased that we rejoined? Is there anything you wish you knew about UNESCO then that you know now?

Killion: Rejoining UNESCO is still a highlight -- not just for me personally, but for our foreign policy as a nation. This was the dream of the late Representative Tom Lantos, for whom, as you noted, I had the honor of working on the House Foreign Affairs Committee for many years, and former President George W. Bush. UNESCO was founded immediately following the end of World War II for the express purpose of creating a culture of peace throughout the world. As the only Holocaust survivor to have served as a member of Congress, Representative Lantos experienced first-hand the horrors of a world without shared moral ground, where friends, neighbors and countries turned on each other. UNESCO in some ways was the international community's most direct response to the tragedies of the Holocaust -- a way of creating common understanding and supporting freedom of expression and learning worldwide, so that global-scale war and genocide could not happen again. He and President Bush shared a passion for using U.S. re-entry into UNESCO strategically to promote human freedom.

Tom Lantos' dream rings true at UNESCO to this day. I recently participated in a break-through UNESCO trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau in early February this year, which for the first time brought together an important delegation of current and former world leaders and ambassadors from several Islamic countries. For me, it was an amazing example of the power of intercultural dialogue. The generation of those who witnessed these horrors is leaving us, but the lessons they helped teach the world need to continue. Even today, Holocaust education is an issue, and UNESCO continues to help educators around the world reinforce tolerance and diversity with the leaders of tomorrow in their classrooms.
UNESCO, very simply, is perhaps the most visible, nonpartisan forum and partner for us to reinforce our commitment not only to multilateral diplomacy, but also other very tangible, salient issues such as free speech, scientific research and development including freedom of inquiry, the environment, literacy for women and girls, and cultural heritage. Through a special committee, UNESCO also works to improve the situation of victims of human rights violations related to its fields of competence. Former President Bush was absolutely spot-on when he stated that our rejoining was part of our commitment to human dignity. A mother being able to read her children's homework, communities able to drink clean water, college students tweeting the first whispers of a revolution -- these are things we take for granted in a free society, but when they are taken away, can make us feel less than human

Kraus: What impact has the U.S. had on the organization since it rejoined?

Killion: Our impact comes both from policy achievements, notably in the field of education, and programmatic reforms. For example, we are delighted at the dynamic work happening at UNESCO intersecting technology and education. A pilot project that the UNESCO field office in Pakistan has undertaken is using mobile phones as a platform to help young women improve their reading skills. Not only is educating women and girls a cornerstone of our engagement at UNESCO, but we believe that putting technology in young women's hands to be a very empowering experience for them, as it connects them to the larger world around them.

I am also thrilled to have the opportunity to work with and get to know former First Lady Laura Bush, who has worked tirelessly to combat illiteracy around the world, as the Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations Literacy Decade. As a member of UNESCO's Executive Board, its primary managerial body, the United States is working to ensure that UNESCO continues to pursue critical reforms and increase accountability and transparency, while also pursuing initiatives that synch with U.S. priorities and interests.

I am especially pleased that UNESCO put in place this past December a whistleblower policy which goes further than the UN standard in giving the UNESCO ethics officer the power to require an investigation whenever he believes information provided by a whistleblower justifies it. On the policy front, we have led opposition to a proposed Obiang Prize at UNESCO, which would have "honored" a corrupt dictator's attempt at public relations, and the proposed staging of World Philosophy Day in Iran - a country hardly known for the free, open debate essential to celebrating philosophical discussion.

We also have been elected to a number of critical committees within UNESCO that allow us to help shape specific policies, such as the Executive Council of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which drives oceanographic and climate change research. We also serve as the Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Council of the International Hydrological Program, focusing on water management, freshwater research and water-related disaster-preparedness and mitigation, which is not only a scientific concern but, as we've unfortunately seen in places like Haiti and Pakistan, a public health issue also.

One project on the horizon is the creation of an International Museum for Women in the Arts (IMWA), to be based in Amman. On a limited budget, we are working with partners, including the Russia and Jordan, with the goal of creating a showcase, teaching center and meeting place for women artists across the world. Our hope is to make culture more available as a tool for freedom of expression - particularly to sectors of society whose voices may be silenced by local laws or customs - and expression of creativity. Even the design is an example of accessible, affordable culture. We are partnering with Architecture for Humanity to sponsor a contest for young, promising architects to submit designs.

Kraus: What has been your biggest challenge?

Killion: We have fought hard, along with our fellow member-nations, to defeat initiatives that run contrary to our interests as a nation and ultimately, UNESCO's interests as a champion of free expression and human rights. Most notably, we banded together to support the election of UNESCO's current Director General Irina Bokova, beating back a candidate who promoted anti-Semitism and opposed freedom of expression. DG Bokova is leading the way in critical procedural and ethical reforms within the UNESCO system, and publicly championing critical issues like freedom of expression, climate change and girls' education.

Kraus: Right now Washington is embroiled in a debate about deficit reduction. Funding for international organizations like UNESCO is on the chopping block. How would you respond to critics who say that the $81 million that U.S. taxpayers have contributed to UNESCO in 2010 has not helped to advance core U.S. interests? What tangible benefits does our nation receive from participating in multilateral organizations?

Killion: It is vitally important that the U.S. remain committed to UNESCO - an organization founded on the very principles that Americans hold dear - defending and promoting human rights. Our leadership in a body of over 190 members means we are able to leverage a budget of $70 million a year -- or 22 percent of UNESCO's operating budget - to help further these goals. Member-states often turn to UNESCO, and to us, for help formulating key building blocks of peaceful societies, such as education, culture, open media and science. It's thus in our interest to see that UNESCO develops and promotes guidelines and policies based on shared democratic ideals, as these become points of reference for societies around the world. Like it or not, not every country welcomes U.S. leadership on its own -- but UNESCO has been able to step up and help preserve basic human freedoms and combat extremism around the world. Other member-states look to us for leadership and have turned to us for help when repressive regimes, such as Iran, have attempted to undermine the core mission of UNESCO, and thus use it to spread repression. In other words, our engagement in UNESCO is as important as our military posture for our national defense.

But don't take just my word for it. Listen to the voice of the private sector. The amazing story that is unfolding includes the many companies knocking at UNESCO's door to team up on projects in education, science and technology. Companies like Apple, Nokia, Cisco, Intel, Procter and Gamble, and Microsoft, just to name a few, see the value of working with UNESCO as part of their global engagement strategy and already have projects underway. A big part of my role here is to help make these private-public section partnership connections and support them -- which brings new energy and ideas to education, science and culture.

You should also hear from the American researchers and students whom we are helping to connect with their peers around the world for better, more collaborative research, development, and understanding that in turn build a better world for all of us. The scientific community has been flocking to UNESCO for its ability to bring great minds together to help solve some of the world's biggest problems together. For example, in response to the massive floods in Pakistan last year, UNESCO help mobilize hydrologists, meteorologists and other scientists from the U.S. and other countries to help the country address the extent of damage and take steps to prevent future catastrophes.

The world is changing, and so is diplomacy. All of us - governments, NGOs, private sector, teachers, journalists and children - have to work together and listen to each other more than ever to get the job done. This is 21st century diplomacy in action - and I am proud to be a part of it.

Kraus: Ambassador Killion, thank you for taking the time to discuss these important issues and the role of UNESCO with us.

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Recent proposed budget cuts threaten to reduce the U.S. role in UNESCO, and will make it difficult for the U.S. to develop the strong relationship with civil society that will help improve international relations for the U.S. The House just cut $166 million for international organizations. As we've seen through recent events in the Middle East and in the increasing importance of non-state actors, individuals have the power to rapidly impact international affairs. Effectively engaging civil society groups through organizations such as UNESCO will help to bring about a more peaceful and just world. Civil society engagement is will continue to be an important part of U.S. foreign policy strategy, and strong engagement with civil society and strong support for UNESCO will help to further U.S foreign policy goals. Citizens for Global Solutions will be following the proposed budget cuts as they make their way through the Senate and meeting with Senate offices to discuss the importance of funding organizations like UNESCO. For updates check out The Global Citizen.