Madame Chair, Madame Director-General, Excellencies, Colleagues, Friends,
We meet today at a critical moment for the future of the world’s cultural heritage. The ancient markets of the Old City of Aleppo lie in ruins, Sufi shrines in Libya have been desecrated and historic mausoleums in Timbuktu have been destroyed.
How are we to respond to these shocking attacks on our shared cultural heritage?
Special Envoy for Syria Brahimi has asked UNESCO to send experts to Aleppo to assess the damage and advise on preventive measures to protect what remains.
UNESCO has put together a team of experts, led by the universally respected and tireless cultural defender, Mounir Bouchenaki, to undertake this important mission. So far, they have been prevented from entering Syria. The UNESCO Secretariat and its member states must take action to protect this priceless cultural heritage.
Here at UNESCO, we understand that ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause for war.
We know too – as the UNESCO Constitution states – that “the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfill in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern.”
By speaking out in defense of these important sites, this Organization defends these values and reminds all of us that mutual respect and understanding are essential to our goal of building peace.
The United States believes strongly in demonstrating our respect for culture. We recently provided emergency funds to stabilize and protect the historic 12th Century Minaret at Jam in Afghanistan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I am also working together with my dear colleague, the ambassador from Afghanistan, to explore how we can save the minaret in the old city of Herat.
In addition, through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, the United States has provided nearly $10 million in direct funding in recent years for 125 projects at 74 World Heritage sites in 49 countries.
This includes funds for the restoration of such important sites as the Aslam Mosque in Cairo, the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra in Jordan, and the 10th‐Century Temple of Phnom Bakheng in Cambodia. The United States is committed to doing our part to protect our common world heritage whenever and wherever we can.
UNESCO’s obligation to defend peace is not limited to culture. The “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” are core elements in UNESCO’s founding principles.
As President Obama recently told the UN General Assembly, “the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”
This is why we believe strongly that UNESCO must remain steadfast in its efforts to promote freedom of speech around the world.
UNESCO occupies a unique space in the UN system in defending freedom of speech and the right of journalists to work in safety. We commend the Director General for repeatedly calling our attention to the dangers faced by journalists.
As she has noted, at least 30 journalists have been killed in Syria since the start of the uprising. Tragically, reporters have also been killed in recent months in Somalia, Tanzania and Cambodia.
We owe it to these courageous individuals to honor and protect free journalism. UNESCO is doing absolutely the right thing in speaking out and working for the protection of journalists around the world.
Education is another essential tool for building peace, as the UN Secretary General recognized when he asked UNESCO to take the lead in coordinating the Education First initiative.
Thanks to UNESCO’s monitoring, we know there has been progress made towards the MDG goals in education. But we also know there is much more to be done.
We are proud to have had a role in launching one very successful initiative, UNESCO’s Global Initiative for Girls’ and Women’s Education, which enjoys the sponsorship of the Secretary General, Secretary of State Clinton, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Agha Khan, and many foundations and companies.
My delegation will continue to look for ways to support this critical effort.
This is the beauty of UNESCO – it uses the most basic building blocks of our civilization – education, science, culture and communication – and finds new ways to harness them in the service of peace.
That’s the right role and the right direction for UNESCO, a path that our current Director General has charted.
The United States remains a full and active members of the Organization. President Obama is committed, and I am committed, to working with the U.S. Congress to seek a solution that would resolve the U.S. funding situation at UNESCO and restore our ability to pay our dues.
Before I close, I would like to thank all of you for the many messages of condolence and concern we received in the aftermath of the terrible attack in Benghazi last month.
It was so encouraging for me to know how strongly the UNESCO community supports and respects the work of dedicated diplomats who go out into the world to promote mutual understanding and peace.
In such a dark and difficult moment, it gave me great solace to know that we are a team here, a team that is truly committed, after all is said and done, to finding a way to build the defenses of peace together.