Russia’s ongoing leadership role with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, makes a mockery of the body and the international standards it purports to uphold. For almost four years, Russia has served on UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the foremost global body charged with protecting sites of cultural significance. The Committee’s 21-member countries decide additions to the World Heritage List and how to protect those places of immense value to global patrimony.
The fact that Russia remains a Committee member after its wanton destruction of Ukrainian heritage mystifies. When the World Heritage Committee meets on Sept. 10, it begs the question: Why is Russia still part of UNESCO’s most influential body?
Russia’s purposeful destruction of Ukrainian religious and cultural sites is no secret. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay visited Kyiv, Chernihiv and Odessa in April to see the devastation herself. When Russia targeted heritage sites in Odessa in July, she condemned the attack as an “outrageous destruction mark[ing] an escalation of violence against cultural heritage of Ukraine.” She urged Russia to abide by its international commitments.
UNESCO has painstakingly documented the extensive devastation wrought by Russia. As of August 2023, the UN agency had verified damage to 284 heritage properties, including “120 religious sites, 27 museums, 104 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, [and] 13 libraries.” But that’s a conservative count. Yale University’s Conflict Observatory and the Smithsonian Institution have documented 1,689 damaged sites, noting that Russian bombs regularly target memorials and places of worship.
Russia has shattered the norms that undergird UNESCO’s mission of cultural heritage protection. UNESCO’s core document, the World Heritage Convention, declares that “deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world.” Other international treaties signed by Russia obligate it to “respect” and “safeguard” cultural property during conflict. UNESCO has recognized such destruction could constitute a war crime.
As the World Heritage Committee prepares to gather in Riyadh, how can UNESCO members allow Russia to continue to serve on the Committee in good faith?
The World Heritage Committee consists of 21 countries drawn from nations that signed the World Heritage Convention, which Russia ratified in 1988. The Committee’s role goes to the core of UNESCO, as it oversees UNESCO’s World Heritage List and World Heritage Fund. Members are drawn from UNESCO’s membership, which is automatic for all United Nations member states.
The agenda for the Riyadh meeting focuses on adding sites to the World Heritage List and assessing the safety of exciting properties. Considering Russia’s purposeful targeting of heritage in Ukraine, Russia’s membership is entirely at odds with this vital mission.
Russia’s removal, therefore, is appropriate and needed. While UNESCO documents do not outline removal processes, Section III of the Convention established the Committee election process through a vote of UNESCO’s general assembly. In addition, Section III also empowers the Committee to develop its own procedural rules. Both present opportunities for nations to debate the appropriateness of Russian membership. It’s true no country has ever been removed, but the legal maxim “everything that is not forbidden is allowed” would permit removal if UNESCO members so decided.
Director-General Azoulay should call this discussion. She has seen the devastation, and her leadership and prestige could bring this question to the forefront. Heritage groups are urging such a consideration. Stephan Dömpke, chairman of World Heritage Watch, called for Russia’s removal, saying, “It [is] time for humanity to take a stand against this barbarism.” In urging Germany to take this issue up, he added, “Russia [has] forfeited any right to play a role in international bodies that advise or decide on the protection of cultural property.”
With the United States recently rejoining UNESCO, we, Germany and other like-minded nations could support Director-General Azoulay in questioning Russia’s membership on the World Heritage Committee. Because of the Committee’s current composition, a removal vote would be a closely run affair, requiring significant diplomatic energy and abstentions from several members. Despite the long odds of Russia’s removal from the Committee, maintaining Russia’s diplomatic isolation makes this a good fight to pick.
Director-General Azoulay may wish to avoid conflict, but this question is unavoidable. Now in her second term, what kind of legacy does she want? Similarly, as the United States works to reestablish its presence with UNESCO after its five-year absence, diplomats may want to dodge this fight. But leadership is required. And considering Republican skepticism of UNESCO and the U.S. reengagement, demonstrating how the State Department proactively uses its seat to promote foreign policy objectives and keep Russia isolated could help convince critics that American involvement is warranted.
The September meeting of the World Heritage Committee is an opportunity for action by the agency’s leadership and member countries truly valuing the preservation of cultural heritage. Based on Russia’s criminal behavior, it should not be allowed to serve. Pushing for their removal would preserve UNESCO's legitimacy, help protect cultural heritage, and advance foreign policy priorities.
Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.