The United States recently withdrew from UNESCO over accusations of anti-Israel bias, eliminating one of the UN agency’s largest sources of funding. The agency, also known as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was founded in the aftermath of the First World War and serves as the UN’s specialized agency for the “promotion of peace and security through education, science, culture, and communication”.
It is perhaps best-known for its relatively apolitical role in compiling the World Heritage List and World Heritage in Danger List. While it appears less frequently in diplomatic disputes in comparison to other UN agencies, controversy does occasionally arise around certain issues: disagreement about Palestine being a member state and the recognition of Che Guevara’s writings as part of the world’s heritage are just a few of the quarrels it has witnessed over the years.
While not widely publicized in the West, UNESCO has been, for the past few years, embroiled in a vigorous dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. This period of conflict was sparked following Kosovo’s declaration of independence and subsequent partial recognition as a sovereign state in 2008.
Kosovo was recommended for UNESCO membership in 2015. After several months of media campaigns and strong statements from both Serbian and Kosovan politicians, the newborn state didn’t reach UNESCO’s mandated two-thirds majority vote and ultimately failed in its bid to join the agency in November 2015.
Kosovo’s main impetus for joining UNESCO was to bolster its legitimacy as a sovereign state, since it still is not a member of the UN due to opposition from Russia. Nonetheless, since its declaration of independence, Kosovo has made great efforts in joining other international organizations as a sovereign state, consistently attracting controversy along the way. Its successful admission to UEFA in 2016 is the most recent of these efforts.
The “No Kosovo in UNESCO” campaign was led by members of the Serbian government, as well as prominent members of the Serbian diaspora. Proponents of the “No” campaign posited that Kosovo could not legitimately join UNESCO since it is not yet a fully recognized state by the international community. Moreover, they claimed the state cannot join UNESCO in good faith, since it purportedly failed to protect Serbian Orthodox cultural and religious heritage on its territory since the Kosovo War ended in 1999.
In one of the most egregious episodes of ethnic violence after the end of the war, riots by Albanian Kosovars in 2004 led to multiple deaths and heavy displacement of minority Serb populations, as well as severe damage to religious and cultural heritage. In many communities, every single Serb, Roma, and Ashakali house was burned down, with the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) failing to protect the targeted populations. 35 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were significantly damaged–many even completely demolished and burned down–during the 2004 unrest.
The Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, a collection of monasteries and churches from the 13th and 14th centuries belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church and located in Kosovo, were subsequently inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger List in 2006. UNESCO cited “difficulties in its management and conservation stemming from the region’s political instability” as the main reason behind this addition, one of the very few in Europe.
KFOR peacekeepers permanently stand guard in front of monasteries like Visoki Dečani, part of the Medieval Monuments of Kosovo site, as these religious buildings are accorded special protection to prevent any further damage to them.
While it is unrealistic to ever expect the Serbian state to push for Kosovo to join UNESCO, since it would mean implicitly recognizing its sovereignty, it makes sense from a purely conservationist outlook, albeit with a few caveats.
Indeed, UNESCO membership, while far from solving all conservation issues, adds a non-negligible layer of protection to cultural heritage in a member country.
UNESCO member states, along with their right to vote and to provide input on the agency’s decisions, are obliged to cooperate with the agency’s conservation efforts. The UN and its specialized agencies, while lacking in direct regulatory power, have the legitimacy necessary to bring attention to specific issues and strongly condemn any lapses in their obligations to collaborate in conservation its members might have, which in turn can potentially lead to real action: In 2008, criticism from UNESCO successfully led Liverpool city council to halt real estate development that would have damaged its historic harbour and Georgian architecture, listed on the World Heritage List. As long as it lacks any association with UNESCO, Kosovo has much less accountability when it comes to the protection of World Heritage sites on its territory.
It is important to note that the force that UNESCO carries depends heavily on the collaboration of its member states and on the political will of local populations in ensuring World Heritage sites are properly conserved.
Due to international pressure stemming in part from the violence of the 2004 unrest, Kosovo passed a set of laws designed to guarantee the preservation and protection of cultural and religious heritage on its territory, especially near “Medieval Monuments in Kosovo” World Heritage sites. This legal framework for protection was only reluctantly adopted by Kosovo’s parliament, since it was seen as a necessary step to gain full acceptance from the international community and end the “supervised independence” of Kosovo.
However, enforcement of these laws has been severely lacking: In 2015, vandalism and demolition of Serbian religious sites was still ongoing. Moreover, the laws had either failed to be implemented or been outright boycotted by local authorities in Prizren, where Our Lady of Ljeviš, one of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo, is located.
The crux of the issue therefore lies in the weak enforcement of these laws. Were they properly enforced and made a priority by Kosovo’s government, the No campaign’s arguments against the country joining the agency would carry much less weight.
It is indeed politically unfeasible for the Serbian government to support Kosovo’s accession to UNESCO. However, those primarily concerned with the protection of Medieval Monuments in Kosovo should support its bid for membership in UNESCO, while ensuring that Kosovo’s commitment to the protection of Serbian cultural and religious heritage is not simply a formal declaration designed to appease the concerns of the international community.
Despite its lack of regulatory power, UNESCO’s position as steward of world heritage remains important. Once existing legal frameworks for heritage protection are properly enforced in Kosovo, UNESCO membership will only strengthen this commitment. It would allow for more international scrutiny on how conservation efforts are implemented, as well as heighten Kosovo’s accountability for any potential failures to live up to its obligations in the future.
As Kosovo contemplates an eventual second bid for UNESCO membership, those who want to protect Serbian heritage in Kosovo should adopt a more nuanced position: one that would lead to better protection for endangered Serbian heritage and a mending of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Edited by Kathryn Schmidt