After years of sparring with Third World and Soviet Bloc members of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Washington finally ran out of patience last week. Acknowledging its exasperation over the UN body’s policies and politicking, the United States declared that it would leave UNESCO at the end of this year and take its $46.75-million share of the UNESCO budget—25 per cent of its total—with it. The blow, though not unexpected, threatens the organization with a major financial crisis because U.S. contributions will cease on Dec. 31. It also calls into question the chances of UNESCO DirectorGeneral Amadou Mahtar M’Bow of Senegal serving to the end of his term in 1987.
The U.S. decision, which President Ronald Reagan made at the urging of Secretary of State George Shultz, was personally handed to M’Bow in Paris by Ambassador Jean Gerard at midweek. Senior UNESCO officials were dismayed. Said one: “We will refrain from any comment on this matter—now, or for some time to come.” Washington was less reticent. Said state department spokesman Alan Romberg: “[UNESCO has] politicized virtually every subject it deals with, exhibited hostility toward basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, [and] demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.” Added Assistant State Secretary Gregory Newell: “There is no conceivable way that UNESCO could change so that we would be enticed to remain.”
Founded in 1945 by mostly Western nations to promote literacy, education and culture, particularly in the less developed countries, UNESCO now has 161 member nations including Canada. Its budget has grown from an initial $7 million to a two-year, 1984-1985 total of $374 million. It employs about 2,500 at its headquarters in Paris’ seventh arrondissement (district) near La Place des Invalides. It has undertaken numerous projects around the world, including schools in Africa and the creation of Mount Everest National Park. But, according to Washington, UNESCO has allowed itself to become a forum for Soviet-inspired, anti-U.S. propaganda and has strayed dangerously from its original
mandate, especially on the issue of a “world information order” under which UNESCO proposes to establish international guidelines and credentials for journalists working in member states. Most Western governments, including Canada’s, have reacted warily to an idea that appears to be a thinly disguised attempt to curb press freedom.
U.S. allies, including Canada, West Germany and France, privately sympathized with Washington’s frustration but still were disappointed by the decision to withdraw. Said an external affairs department spokesman in Ottawa: “We believe there can be a better possibility for setting it right from within.” For its part, the Soviet news agency, TASS, said that Reagan had waged a “malicious campaign of blackmail, threats and slander” against UNESCO, and the government newspaper, Pravda, said that Washington was withdrawing because it feared the loss of its
world media monopoly. At UN headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar hoped that “a way will be found for the United States to remain a member.”
The U.S. move bore some similarity to its huffy 1977 pullout from another UN body, the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO), which Washington criticized as too left-wing. Three years later, in 1980, the United States returned to the ILO, resuming its budget contribution. It seemed at least possible that Washington might rejoin UNESCO eventually.
Sources in Paris and Washington suggested that one roadblock was Director-General M’Bow himself. During his nine-year tenure, M’Bow has had frequent run-ins with U.S. officials. According to a scathing report on UNESCO released last October by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, M’Bow met last June with Gerard and Newell and “the director-general clearly implied that the United States was racist in its dealings with him and the Third World and asserted that ‘it had a deep psychological problem’ which it needed to attend to urgently.” The Heritage Foundation report, written by Owen Harries, Australian ambassador to UNESCO in 1982-1983, added that under M’Bow the organization’s activities had become “consistently inimical to U.S. interests and values.” M’Bow himself lives in a penthouse apartment atop
UNESCO headquarters and enjoys a wide range of tax-free allowances and perquisites. Some diplomats have criticized him for setting the style for a large group of high-living officials.
U.S. disaffection with the UN generally has increased under the Reagan administration, at least in part because the Soviet Union seems to be winning more than its share of UN diplomatic skirmishes. According to Richard L. Jackson, author of The NonAligned, the UN and the Super-Powers, Third World countries voted with the Soviet Union an average of 83.4 per cent of the time during the 1982 General Assembly sessions and with the United States only 20.4 per cent of the time. Said a senior UN official in New York: “[The UNESCO decision] is obviously an admission of defeat for the Reagan administration’s highly ideological but woefully inexperienced diplomats.”
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