Monday, March 10, 2008

Editorial: The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO

The decentralized agencies of the United Nations System have their own governance. The form of that governance varies from agency to agency. For example, the International Labor Organization has a system in which government, industry and labor are represented from each member nation. UNESCO is unique in that its constitution calls for each member nation to create a national body for the purpose of associating its principal bodies interested in educational, scientific and cultural matters with the work of the Organisation. That element of the constitution was negotiated among the founding nations at the creation of the organization, with strong support from the United States delegation, and has continued in force for six decades.

The UNESCO constitution leaves to each member nation the decision of how best to involve its intellectual communities in its own national commission, but specifically calls for national commissions to serve as advisory bodies to their governments. With the reentry of the United States into UNESCO, the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO was reestablished and chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The State Department has indeed used the National Commission to provide advice.

Some years ago, Bruce Smith wrote a book (The Advisors) about government advisory committees. One of its most memorable statements was that advisory committees are most effective when the person receiving the advice actually wants that advice and has requested it. That is a most reasonable suggestion. Indeed, most federal advisory committees are created by the agencies that they advise, and the FACA has sunset provisions so that committees created by one official do not live on to bother later officials who do not want their advice.

An exception, however, is where the Congress designates by law that the administration must have an advisory committee, as the Congress has done with the National Commission for UNESCO. In such cases, the existence of the independent advisory committees can be regarded in part as one of the of the checks and balances established in the U.S. system of government. In such cases, the administration is required to obtain and listen to advice whether its political officials want that advice or not.

In most federal advisory committees, the Executive Branch selects the members. The FACA requires that they do so in a fair and impartial manner, but the choice is left to the administration in power. In the case of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, however, the enabling legislation is unique in that it calls for 60 of the 100 members to be named by non-governmental organizations. Indeed, it calls on the National Commission itself to periodically review and, if deemed advisable, revise the list of such organizations designating representatives in order to achieve a desirable rotation among organizations represented.

Thus the Congress in exercising its oversight responsibilities over the Executive Branch has required the Department of State to seek advice from the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and indeed has established a mechanism by which that Commission itself can assure the representative appointment of the majority of its members.

The FACA, passed into law long after the legislative authority for the National Commission was in place, recognizes that in some cases the provisions it creates for advisory committees in general will need to be adjusted to meet those imposed by laws establishing specific advisory committees; it grants authority to the White House to make such adjustments of its provisions as may be required in the FACA-mandated charters of the individual advisory committees.

When the new administration takes office in 2009, it should revise the charter of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO to assure that the Commission fulfills the roles envisioned in the UNESCO Constitution (and by reference in the National Commission's authorizing legislation). The new administration should convene a special session of the National Commission to revise the list of non-governmental organizations with rights to name members to the National Commission. It should revise the member of the National Commission accordingly. Having done so, the new administration should actively seek and utilize the advice of the Commission in its dealings with UNESCO.

Indeed, more generally, the new administration should return to earlier practices, utilizing the National Commission much more actively as a vehicle for informing the public about UNESCO and to improve liaison among the U.S. educational, scientific and cultural communities, UNESCO's programs, and the National Commissions of other Nations.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for UNESCO.)

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