Quitting UNESCO would be an act of cultural vandalism

Written by Tom Freeman on 5 December 2018 in Comment

Brexit isn't the only way the UK is looking to isolate itself from the world, and quitting UNESCO could have serious implications for Scotland

Forth bridges - Chris Combe

Hidden amid all the Brexit hysteria, movements within the UK Government to withdraw the UK from UNESCO should give cause for alarm.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt is said to have urged cabinet colleagues to back another Brexit – a cultural one – from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to which the UK pays £11.1m annually.

Mordaunt is thought to be looking to free up some foreign aid cash – her predecessor, Priti Patel, pitched the same idea in 2016 – but the motives behind such a move require serious scrutiny.

Israel and the USA’s withdrawal from the cultural protection body is thought to be linked to UNESCO’s decision to list Hebron, a city in the southern part of the occupied Palestinian territories, as a Palestinian world heritage site.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the body’s “anti-Semitism will no longer be tolerated”.

This is a ridiculous assertion. From the condemnation of Islamic State’s destruction of ancient archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria to the recognition of an unprecedented joint bid for traditional wrestling from North and South Korea in recent months, UNESCO has repeatedly shown geopolitical leadership where governments are playing catch up.

Like the European Union, UNESCO was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War to protect against cultural vandalism and preserve heritage sites. 

It was one of the things that made the United Nations different to what had come before: a global joint commitment to end the practice of nations stealing and destroying each other’s cultural assets, a practice named after the Vandals who destroyed the statues in Rome.

UNESCO grew out of a war in which European neighbours had decimated the heritage quarters of each other’s major cities in bombing raids.

As well as global influence, the body has local relevance too. The United Kingdom has 31 UNESCO heritage sites, and six are in Scotland. These are: St Kilda, Orkney’s Neolithic sites, New Lanark, the Antonine Wall, the Forth Rail Bridge and Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns. 

All these tell a profound story of Scotland’s unique cultural, social and industrial history. They are clearly valued within Scotland, and some might argue international recognition and protection is not necessary.

After all, only one of these special places was a target for bombing in the Second World War  – the 1890 Forth Bridge, in what was to be the first Luftwaffe bombing raid of Britain.

There are modern threats to Scotland’s heritage sites, however. Planning decisions by Edinburgh City Council in recent years have led to campaigners citing UNESCO status as an asset threatened by private development.

Some £2m of lottery funding was channelled into protecting the Roman earthwork-based Antonine Wall from extreme weather. 

Culture is the way we define our nation to ourselves and others. Why would we want to follow Trump and Netanyahu to make that an exclusive, rather than inclusive, act?

Both Mordaunt and Patel are Brexiteers, and there is an undeniable danger in distancing yourself from a vital body that takes a multilateral, multicultural approach. 

Doing so would be to retrace Britain’s attitude towards heritage and culture, not to before the 1973 integration with Europe, but to the days of the flagrant disregard for other cultures that filled the British Museum. 

Empire 2.0, indeed. 

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