UNESCO is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, so it's no surprise that this is the leitmotif running through its biennial General Conference currently underway in Paris.

But this birthday celebration is sharing the podium with two other themes which are dominating this assembly and which go to the heart of what UNESCO should be about: the protection of culture and the promotion of education. While these two themes have been part of UNESCO's core business since day one in 1945, the UNESCO report card has often read 'could do better'. 

UNESCO's reputation has been through rocky days. The extent of its contribution to global affairs has been hard to assess at times, as it became the UN's in-tray for orphan issues. Divisive interests have also been occasionally successful in capturing the UNESCO agenda, dividing membership along geo-economic lines and diminishing its reputation among principal donors. General conferences have been used as proxy war fields as intractable security issues have found alternative means of expression via the UNESCO platform. 

But this birthday assembly comes at a time when UNESCO's guiding role in culture and education is being thrown into the global spotlight. The catalyst has been international recognition of, and strong encouragement for, that role in fighting violent extremism and the cultural destruction and desolation wrought by ISIS.

Just a month ago, the UN General Assembly adopted a new set of global development goals for 2015-2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to replace the Millennium Development Goals. Whatever the future of the SDGs might be, what is clear is that UNESCO has stepped up to the challenge of defining how the education goal should be achieved. In a side event at this week's General Conference, a high level meeting saw many of the world's education ministers and their representatives acclaim UNESCO's 2030 Education Framework for Action for meeting the SDG education targets. Australia is one of its strong supporters.

An inherent part of that education work will be focused on combating extremism. UNESCO's efforts in this area are now seeing it being described as a pillar of international security and an important tool in global efforts to prevent violent extremism. The rallying call is best summed up by an often repeated phrase being heard throughout the General Conference: extremists are made, not born.

The inseparable twin of UNESCO's role in fighting extremism through education is the international recognition of its role in combating the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS, al-Nusra Front and others associated with al Qaeda. This was confirmed earlier this year when the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, particularly by ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. It was decided that all member states should co-operate with Interpol and UNESCO to address this destruction. 

In the wake of the Security Council resolution, there have been a number of international events reinforcing the primacy of UNESCO's role, including a high level conference organised by the Asia Society in New York, supported by Australia, and a Cultural Protection Summit organised by the UK in London last month. UNESCO's own global social media campaign, #Unite4Heritage, aimed at countering extremist propaganda, was launched in Baghdad in March. Not surprisingly, condemnation of cultural destruction as an unacceptable act of war has been a constant refrain by speakers throughout the General Conference, reinforcing UNESCO's job to be the world's champion of cultural heritage and diversity.

So, as the General Conference enters its second week, it's clear that UNESCO has been thrust into being a major player in the global strategy to defeat ISIS. After an extended period of finding itself in the long shadow of some of its UN siblings, UNESCO now has the opportunity and responsibility to fulfill its mandate as a pillar of international security and peace. 

It's ironic that on its 70th anniversary there is again a global understanding of the power of education and culture in responding to conflict and destruction just as there was in the wake of World War II when UNESCO was created to 'establish the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind'.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yeowatzup.