A renewed bid for UNESCO membership

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:30 IST

Kosovo, the tiny state whose creation the Clinton administration in the United States midwifed after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) war that broke up Yugoslavia, is once again seeking membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It had tried and failed once before. Kosovo is not recognised as a state by many United Nations members, including India. As a result, it has, despite the strong backing of the U.S, failed in its bid to join the U.N. as a full-fledged member state. In fact, some European Union (E.U.) member states have declined to recognise Kosovo’s independence.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister, Ivica Dacic, has said that Kosovo is still a U.N.-administered territory and that UNESCO membership will violate international law and U.N. rules. Kosovo can become a member if the UNESCO executive board first recommends it for membership. After that it needs the support of two-thirds of the states that are currently members of the U.N. body. The executive board will meet in October. If it approves Kosovo’s application, then the UNESCO General Conference will vote on the issue in November.

Kosovo has cited precedents to back its case. Its Foreign Minister, Hashim Thaci, has given the examples of Vietnam and Austria. He told the U.N. Security Council in August that both these countries were admitted to UNESCO before they became full-fledged U.N. members.

Serbia realises that UNESCO membership would bolster Kosovo’s claim for legitimacy. The Serbian government has pointed out that Kosovo’s application for membership did not go through U.N. channels and was sent with the signatures of some UNESCO member states. The Serbian government is of the view that Kosovo, even otherwise, does not merit UNESCO membership because the government in Kosovo has turned a blind eye to the desecration of Serbian monasteries and churches. Many of these monuments are UNESCO world heritage sites.

Ivica Dacic said the continuing desecration of orthodox Christian places of worship was part of the Kosovo government’s game plan “of intimidating the remaining” Serbian population in the province. “Since 1999, 236 churches, monasteries and other sites owned by the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as cultural-historical monuments have come under attack,” Dacic told the Security Council recently. According to a report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), 29 churches and monasteries were destroyed during the riots in 2004. UNESCO had estimated the damage at $27 million. There have been recent reports about the vandalising of monasteries and of slogans praising the Islamic State (I.S.) spray-painted on walls.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has its roots in Kosovo and considers the region the cradle of Serb culture. According to Serbian authorities, since the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 in 1999, which led to the creation of Kosovo, some 150 churches and monasteries, 61 of them having the status of cultural monuments, have been either desecrated or demolished. More than 10,000 icons and church artefacts have also been destroyed or stolen and sold in the antiquities market.

Under Ottoman rule, Kosovo became a Muslim majority country having close religious and ethnic ties with neighbouring Albania.

The former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had staked his political career on keeping Kosovo a part of Serbia and the Yugoslav Federation. The Head Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church has written to UNESCO chief Irina Bokova protesting against the moves to let Kosovo into the organisation. He said Kosovo’s application was premature as the government there had failed to preserve the multi-ethnic character of the state. Ten per cent of the population of around two million in Kosovo is of Serb ethnicity.

John Cherian

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