UNESCO must avoid political abuse of Memory of World registry program

It would be problematic if an international organization’s system aimed at protecting cultural properties and promoting understanding of different cultures was abused for anti-Japan propaganda. It is noteworthy that a reform to put a brake on such activities has been realized at the initiative of Japan.

The Executive Board of UNESCO has approved a plan to reform its Memory of the World program. The original purpose of the program, which was launched in 1992, was the preservation and utilization of historical documents, such as France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Japan has questioned the transparency and neutrality of procedures for registration. Hitherto, the screening process had not been disclosed, and there had been no system in place for relevant countries to raise objections.

Documents related to the Nanjing Incident, which were filed by China and registered in 2015, contain materials whose legitimacy is questionable in terms of historical research. In 2016, private organizations based in countries including Japan, China and South Korea applied for documents related to so-called comfort women, but the registration was shelved due to protests by Tokyo.

Only national governments will be eligible to file applications under the new system. Individuals and organizations, which had been allowed to submit applications, will no longer be able to do so. In addition, if a member state is against an application, it can file an objection within 90 days of the application. If the relevant states are unable to reach an agreement, the materials in question will not be included in the Memory of the World register.

This can be said to be a major step forward in preventing applications and registrations based on political considerations and unilateral claims.

China and South Korea are among the 32 countries and regions that make up a working group that drafted the reform plan. Both countries should take into account the meaning of the new system and refrain from using it for political purposes.

Although materials related to comfort women are not subject to the new system, it is hoped that UNESCO will keep the procedures shelved as Japan has objected to the registration of the materials.

The acceptance of new applications, which has been suspended since 2017, will reportedly resume by the end of this year. The Japanese government needs to take the initiative to make efforts to ensure the smooth operation of the new system.

By the same token, when Japan applies for documents related to its modern and contemporary history involving neighboring countries, it will be necessary to prepare materials with established academic interpretations so that no objections are raised.

UNESCO has long been criticized for its political bias and lax management. The administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the U.N. body. Japan has also put pressure on UNESCO to reform by temporarily withholding its 2016 contribution.

How can we improve the bad habits of a U.N. body that does not take active steps to reform unless member states take a hard-line stance? Having Japanese people at the core of each U.N. body surely would not only help the Japanese government gather information, but also help improve the organizations’ governance, transparency and neutrality.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 17, 2021.