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Sri Lanka and UNESCO: Seven decades of partnership


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14 November 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Over the last seven decades the country has worked closely with this UN agency in its fields of specialisation, leading to enhanced cooperation, which may be termed to be among the most amount of collaboration in comparison with all UN agencies. 

In 1949, when Ceylon was being vetoed and blocked from joining the United Nations Organisation in New York on consecutive occasions, membership in UNESCO was an important step forward for the country keen to engage in multilateralism and ensure it played an active role on the world stage from its initial years of freedom onwards. 

Strategising on the part of the first Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister, D.S. Senanayake saw the island start off on a journey that has been varied given the forms of interactions that Sri Lanka has enjoyed with the UN in general and UNESCO in particular. The entry of Ceylon paved the way for the country to contribute to the process and also benefit from the numerous opportunities that were provided. 

Jawaharlal Nehru identified UNESCO as ‘the conscience of humanity’ given the constructive role played by the world body in the promotion of meaningful peace through its conferences, programs and activities at its headquarters in Paris and around the world through regional and field offices as well as National Commissions in member states.  

Historic perspective 

Whilst the Second World War was raging and the focus was entirely on the war effort, a Conference of Allied Minister of Education in the United Kingdom in the early 1940s saw the participation of Governments of European countries, looking to reconstruct their systems of education once peace was restored. The Conference took on greater representation when new governments opted to join the effort, including the United States of America. 

Among the proposals originating from that initial deliberation, was the need to summon a Conference for the establishment of an educational and cultural organisation, which was subsequently convened in London from 1 to 16 November 1945. It gathered representatives of 44 countries who decided to create a grouping that would represent a genuine culture of peace. The body would establish the ‘intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind’ with the primary objective of preventing the outbreak of another world war. Whilst 37 countries founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the Constitution of UNESCO, which was signed on 16 November 1945, came into force on 4 November 1946 after ratification by 20 countries, namely, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States. The inaugural session of the General Conference of UNESCO was held in Paris from 19 November to 10 December 1946 with the participation of 30 governments. 

The American poet and writer, Archibald MacLeish penned the words that formed the opening preamble of the constitution of UNESCO which noted: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” It is this mandate that has remained at the heart of all activities of UNESCO in the ensuing decades, as it has attempted, through the fields of education, culture and science, to foster dialogue among civilizations, enhance understanding of cultures and peoples, promote commonly shared values and contribute towards sustainable development. 

Whether in the drive to attain quality education for all and lifelong learning, or through the mobilisation of science knowledge and policy for sustainable development, or by addressing emerging social and ethical challenges, whilst fostering cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and a culture of peace, and building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication, UNESCO has been able to play a pivotal role in global affairs. 

Given the numerous challenges that Sri Lanka has had to face within the UN system, it is noteworthy to reflect on that which has occurred through UNESCO given the positive developments and their ramifications. From the ratification of standard setting international conventions, the declaration of several World Heritage Sites and assistance in their preservation, the commemoration of Vesak on a unique platform of inter-faith dialogue, serving on the Executive Board of the Organisation, the granting of Category II status to the South Asian Centre for Teacher Development, numerous scholarships and fellowships, and collaboration in the myriad programs of UNESCO, Sri Lanka has enjoyed a unique relationship with this UN agency, which has not been sufficiently highlighted nor acknowledged. 

Sri Lanka has served on the crucial decision making 58-member Executive Board of UNESCO on numerous occasions, with the first being upon the election of Frederick de Silva who served from 1968 to 1974. It was thereafter Nissanka Parakrama Wijeratne who was elected to serve from 1987 to 1989 and Dr. Ananda P. Guruge from 1989 to 1991. Sri Lanka’s re-election in 2003 saw Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku and Mangala Samaraweera representing the country, while Susil Premajayantha and Bandula Gunawardana served on the Executive Board from 2008 to 2011, during their tenures as Ministers of Education in Sri Lanka. In 2015, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam commenced his term on the Executive Board, and it is due to end at the 40th General Conference in 2019. 

Through deliberations at the Executive Board, Sri Lanka has contributed to the central decision making process for 22 years of its membership, and been able to support the steering of the Organisation at some of the most trying times of its existence. From proposing to intervening and passing resolutions, Sri Lanka has been able to play a crucial role as a Member State of the Asia-Pacific group, the largest regional grouping at UNESCO. 

 

Conventions and inscriptions

Having ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention on 6 June 1980, Sri Lanka went on to submit three cultural sites which were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982. These were the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, the Ancient City of Sigiriya, and the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. Two other cultural sites which were inscribed in 1988 were the Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications, and the Sacred City of Kandy. The Golden Temple of Dambulla was added to the cultural list of sites possessing universal value in 1991 taking the number of cultural sites to six.  

 

From active participation in the deliberations of the Executive Board, to the ratification of international conventions, and from playing a contributory role in the governing arms of the organisation’s main programs, to the varied forms of assistance given and received, Sri Lanka has gained immensely from her membership in UNESCO, a crucial UN institution, and one through which the contribution of Sri Lanka has been significant though not highlighted

 

In addition, two Sri Lankan natural sites, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988) and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010) were added to give the country eight sites on the World Heritage List. In 1983, Sri Lanka was elected to the World Heritage Committee which deliberates on sites and their value, and served on it till 1989. 

At present the country has two properties on the Tentative List, which is an inventory of those properties which countries intend to consider for nomination. These are the Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara (2006) and the Seruwila to Sri Pada – Ancient pilgrim route along the Mahaweli River in Sri Lanka (2010). 

Sri Lanka has ratified many Conventions of UNESCO. The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was ratified on 6 June 1980, whilst the 1954 Hague Convention was ratified on 11 May 2004, the 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention on 21 April 2008, and acceded to the International Convention against Doping in Sports on 1 May 2011. Ratification of these conventions has enabled Sri Lanka to adhere to international standards and ensured the country is eligible to derive opportunities found therein. 

Amidst other inscriptions is that which is found in the Memory of the World Register. The Archives of the Dutch East India Company are found in several capitals which formed the nucleus of the Dutch trading route. The inscription notes that ‘the VOC Archives includes thousands of maps and drawings. Frequently, these pictures are the first representations ever made of the people, houses, landscape, flora or fauna of these regions. About twenty five million pages of VOC records have survived in repositories in Jakarta, Colombo, Chennai, Cape Town and The Hague’. 

In addition, Sri Lanka has been elected to the governance bodies of programs and conventions with the UNESCO structure including the Intergovernmental Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), the Intergovernmental Council of the Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme, the International Coordinating Council of the Programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB), the Executive Council of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and more recently on 6th June 2018 to the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, for the period 2018-2022.

 

Vesak as an interfaith platform

UNESCO provides a platform for nations to understand their differences, while celebrating their diversity. It was in this spirit that the Permanent Delegation of Sri Lanka to UNESCO highlighted inter-faith dialogue through the celebration of Vesak. The three-day event, initiated in 2013, has seen the involvement of persons and member states in which Buddhism is present, as well as those which have taken an interest in the platform that was provided to collaborate ideas, engage in discussion and eliminate differences in the pursuit of a common stance of peace and understanding.  

 

As the country embarks upon another decade in the organisation, it is time to comprehend the potential of the relationship with this particular UN agency and deepen engagement through the areas of cooperation currently in existence and also look to furthering that collaboration

 

Thus the “raison d’etre” of the key symposium and many side events has been to invigorate comprehension of the commonalities in all religions, attempt to capture the essence of the message they bear and advocate their inculcation in our daily lives, all through the example and testimony of Buddhism. While noted on the international stage as a much needed exercise, the translation to the local level becomes imperative. The practice has continued since and remains an important day in the Sri Lankan calendar at UNESCO. 

 

Assistance received and rendered

The awarding of fellowships under the auspices of UNESCO has been a practice that has greatly benefited numerous Sri Lankans as they are geared towards enhancing human resources and capacity building at the national level in spheres that are within the mandate of UNESCO’s objectives and program priorities. 

Among the scholarships awarded have been the UNESCO/Israel (MASHAV) co-sponsored Fellowship, the UNESCO/China (The Great Wall) co-sponsored fellowship, the UNESCO/Japan: Obuchi co-sponsored fellowship, the UNESCO/Republic of Korea (IPDC) co-sponsored fellowships, and more recently the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) Early Career Fellowship program. 

Sri Lankan universities have received grants funds under the Participation Programme where the most recent awarding of such funding has been to the Universities of Moratuwa, Ruhuna and Rajarata for projects related to the impact of climate change on World Heritage sites with special focus on the Caves in Dambulla; empowering stakeholders to combat stunting and wasting of children; and the strengthening of the partnership between academia and farming communities. 

Sri Lankan universities have received grants funds under the Participation Programme where the most recent awarding of such funding has been to the Universities of Moratuwa, Ruhuna and Rajarata for projects related to the impact of climate change on World Heritage sites with special focus on the Caves in Dambulla; empowering stakeholders to combat stunting and wasting of children; and the strengthening of the partnership between academia and farming communities. 

Sri Lanka too has offered scholarships through UNESCO to students and researchers, especially in countries such as Afghanistan. Of significance is the contributions made by Sri Lankans over the decades to the enhancements of the relationship between Sri Lanka and UNESCO, most significant of which would be Dr. Roland Silva who pioneered the Cultural Triangle project of 1980 and was instrumental in the preparation of the applications for Sri Lanka’s nominations to the World Heritage List. 

In the sphere of oceans and science, Prof. Samantha Hettiarachchi was amongst the first scientists to study the relations between mangroves and wave attenuation. He led efforts to establish the Ministry of Disaster Management and the Disaster Management Centre and functioned as the Chairman of the Working Group on Risk Assessment of UNRSCO/Indian Ocean Commission in Paris and on the Inter-governmental group for the establishment of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System. His work has been reflected in the guidelines drawn up by UNESCO for coastal hazards, risk assessment and management. 

 

Conclusion

From active participation in the deliberations of the Executive Board, to the ratification of international conventions, and from playing a contributory role in the governing arms of the organisation’s main programs, to the varied forms of assistance given and received, Sri Lanka has gained immensely from her membership in UNESCO, a crucial UN institution, and one through which the contribution of Sri Lanka has been significant though not highlighted. 

As the country embarks upon another decade in the organisation, it is time to comprehend the potential of the relationship with this particular UN agency and deepen engagement through the areas of cooperation currently in existence and also look to furthering that collaboration. The canvassing for another term on the Executive Board of UNESCO; greater involvement in the World Heritage Committee with potential candidates being nominated for their expertise, other sites being identified and submitted for inscription and sites already inscribed being looked after well; to the activation of the Category II South Asian Centre for Teacher Development to be truly what it was envisaged to be, a pioneer in the field of teacher development, which could be replicated in other regions of the world; as well as intensified participation in all programs and activities of the organisation would augur well for Sri Lanka. 

Furthermore the appointment of a dedicated Ambassador to UNESCO with a sizable delegation with the necessary expertise in the areas of education, culture and science would enable Sri Lanka to seize the numerous opportunities available and ensure that the contribution being made is significant and meaningful. 

The next decade remains crucial for many reasons. While Sri Lanka receives fresh leadership and a new presidential term begins, it is imperative that foreign policy formulation intensifies to meet the growing challenges of geopolitics but more importantly focus on the returns of multilateralism and engagement which would afford wider and deeper guarantees for an island nation like Sri Lanka. 


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