Cultural Sustainability: What is the Role of UNESCO?

 by Luca Niccolai

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an intellectual agency of the United Nations, created in 1945, as a response to international conflict. It is believed that morals and solidarity are needed to achieve peace among nations. Therefore, UNESCO’s aim is to build intercultural understanding through the protection of heritage, and support of cultural diversity. UNESCO also works on improving access to quality education, sharing knowledge and improving scientific research.

UNESCO created the idea of a World Heritage not only to protect sites of outstanding universal value, but also to encourage cultural awareness and communication, believed to be essential bases to achieve sustainable development. Curiously enough, culture does not appear in any of the Millennium Development Goals, and more recent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), despite UNESCO being part of the same institution that created them. The only SDG UNESCO’s work could be linked to is Goal 17: Partnership for the Goals, as UNESCO insists on the necessity of common action to achieve sustainable development. The latter is argued to only be achievable through good communication and understanding, hence the importance of culture. The campaign #campaign2015goal has advocated for the inclusion of culture in the SDGs, and over 1,900 signatories including 700 organizations have endorsed their declaration on the inclusion of culture in the SDGs.


So why is UNESCO’s work on culture important to us?

On their website, UNESCO explains that we must create holistic policies, which must address every aspect of sustainable development. The agency argues that in an interconnected world, intercultural dialogue is essential, as we live together and aim to deliver a common action to achieve sustainable development. Therefore, it is vital to acknowledge our diversity, as not all solutions are appropriate for every situation. Furthermore, UNESCO explains that we live in an uncertain world, and the future of nations depends on our ability to understand each other and on our ability to unite to fight global issues, such as terrorism and climate change. It is undeniable that culture has the power to transform societies. Our cultural heritage, indeed, enriches our everyday life, and represents a source of identity and cohesion. Additionally, UNESCO argues that creativity contributes to building open, inclusive and pluralistic societies. Culture, thus, plays a significant role in bringing nations together to achieve sustainable development, and is an important factor, which needs to be considered when creating policies and allocating assistance.


How does UNESCO help protect our heritage and foster creativity? The agency created a list of World Heritage in Danger.

UNESCO explains that natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis can threaten World Heritage sites. However, there are currently more human-induced threats, like armed conflict, pollution, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourist development, which cause these sites to be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. A vivid example of human-induced threat to a classified landmark is the Crac des Chevalier in Syria. This 11th-century castle had been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 2006, and was used by armed rebels as a shelter during the Syrian Crisis. Then it was bombed by the Syrian Army in 2013. Such armed conflict can have disastrous impacts on landmarks, thus the attempt of the agency to raise international awareness of the issue.

Adding a site to the World Heritage list results in this site being protected by international treaties. Furthermore, if a site happens to be on the List of World Heritage in Danger, the World Heritage Commission is allowed to immediately send assistance from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered property. Furthermore, adding a landmark to this list is a call for joint effort and, thus, alerts the International Community.

UNESCO’s work for culture is extremely important to the promotion and protection of our cultural heritage. Culture and diversity should be largely considered in the decision-making process of policies and assistance, as it plays a significant role in affecting the international response. Moreover, it is arguably one of the most important factors in the achievement of sustainable development.

If you want to learn more on the role of UNESCO regarding culture and heritage, please visit their website:

Source: UNESCO

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