UNESCO: Britain Returns to the Fold

By Dutt, Sagarika | New Zealand International Review, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

UNESCO: Britain Returns to the Fold


Dutt, Sagarika, New Zealand International Review


After twelve long years Britain has rejoined UNESCO. Soon after the British general election in May 1997 the new Labour government of the United Kingdom announced its decision to return to UNESCO on 1 July 1997. At UNESCO's 151st session of the Executive Board in May, Tony Bazeley of the new Department for International Development, made a brief statement on behalf of the British Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, declaring that rejoining the organisation `underlines our strong commitment to the United Nations' system and to its work in development'. He reminded the delegates that UNESCO had been born in Britain and that a group of countries had met in London in 1945 to set up a genuinely international organisation for the promotion of peace through collaboration in education, science and culture'. The draft Constitution was signed by 37 states in London on 16 November 1945 and deposited with the Foreign Office, where it remains to this day. He also pointed out to them that, although Britain has been formally absent from the organisation for many years, `we have nevertheless continued to take an interest in its activities and have participated in a number of its collaborative ventures and programmes'. However, for Britain, this is a new beginning. The British government looks forward to working closely with the Director-General and `fellow member states, developed and developing alike' in order to `maximise UNESCO's effectiveness and impact, particularly in the poorest countries and for the poorest people'.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor, enthusiastically welcomed Britain's decision to rejoin the organisation, and said that `UNESCO looks forward to the great contribution educators, scientists, intellectuals and artists from the United Kingdom can make in our world wide partnership to build peace founded upon freedom and justice -- through education, science, culture and communication'. He also added that the role of the United Kingdom is particularly important in `promoting principles of democracy and universal ethical values'.(1)

Although the Labour Party had said that it would take the country back to UNESCO if it won the election, the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UNA) and the Friends of UNESCO had left nothing to chance. A UNA working committee had been formed to lobby Parliament, and they had worked hard and relentlessly for years. The man to whom most credit is due is a retired civil servant, Rashid Kaleh. The UNA has this to say of him: "Rashid Kaleh gave his life to the campaign ... working all hours of the day -- and of the night, too, when that was needed - in order to ensure that, especially in Parliament, the issue was never allowed to be swept under the carpet'.(2) Others who have worked hard to keep the spirit of UNESCO alive in Britain include Malcolm Harper, Maurice Goldsmith, David Wardrop, Dennis Chisman and Margaret Quass, all of the UNA or the Friends of UNESCO.

British objections

Britain left UNESCO in 1985, soon after the withdrawal of the United States from the organisation in protest against its politicisation. On 2 April 1984, the British Minister of Overseas Development, Timothy Raison, had advised the Director-General that, while the United Kingdom remained `firmly committed to the ideals and principles which are set forth in the UNESCO Constitution', they believed that a number of tendencies were developing inside the organisation which they did not think were in its longer term interests or compatible with its original spirit. These included the `political aspects of certain programmes' and the way in which the, UNESCO fora were being used by some to attack values and ideals set out in the constitution' and also the growing size of the budget. The British government also submitted proposals for reform of the organisation relating to programme issues, UNESCO's governing bodies, budgetary questions, general programme matters, evaluation, management issues and the third medium term plan.

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