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CULTURE: First Woman Head Seeks New Direction for UNESCO

PARIS, Oct 16 2009 (IPS) - The rapturous applause that greeted Irina Bokova Thursday as she was confirmed UNESCO’s new director-general was a sign that the organisation is keen to move on from recent controversies.

Irina Bokova Credit:

Irina Bokova Credit:

Bokova, a 57-year-old Bulgarian, will be the first woman and the first Eastern European to head UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) since it was formed in 1945. She has pledged to advance dialogue between nations and cultures, rejecting the idea that the world is on course for a “clash of civilisations”.

“Your vote of confidence brings me great strength,” she told UNESCO members. “I shall be guided in my work by my concept of a new humanism for the 21st century.”

The race for the top job had been marred by controversy around the leading contender, Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni. He had remarked last year that he would “burn Israeli books” if he found any in his country’s Library of Alexandria.

His candidature was slammed by a group of Jewish intellectuals and other critics, who mounted well-publicised opposition in the months leading up to the first round of voting. Although Hosni apologised for his remarks, critics said he was unfit to head an organisation devoted to the promotion and protection of cultural diversity.

In the end, Bokova was named director-general in September after five rounds of voting. Her nomination was confirmed Thursday by UNESCO’s member states at their 35th general conference. Of the 173 secret ballots cast, 166 were for her.

Bokova told journalists that she remained friends with the Egyptian minister, and that she respected Arab countries. She said she comes from a country with centuries of peaceful co-existence between different ethnicities, religions and cultures.

While Egypt seems to have accepted her election, its neighbour Libya announced five days before Bokova’s confirmation that it would freeze cooperation programmes with UNESCO if she were chosen the new director- general, and that it would withdraw from the executive board and all committees.

“Libya, as a member of the body, has the right to let its voice be heard, but I think it is unfortunate that the decision they’ve made has come at this time,” Davidson Hepburn, president of the general conference, told IPS.

“You cannot prevent a member state from carrying out its government’s mandate,” he added. “I think Libya has been a great contributor to the work of UNESCO, and their decision is a pity, but I personally don’t think any group should be held hostage by one member state.”

Analysts say the Libyan position is a result of the case involving five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were declared guilty in Libya of intentionally infecting more than 400 children with the HIV virus at a hospital in the city of Benghazi in the late 1990s.

Bulgaria and the European Union argued that the nurses were innocent and were being used as scapegoats by the government of Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The issue was resolved in 2007 when the medical workers were freed with the help of France, after eight years in jail.

Bokova, who served earlier as Bulgaria’s ambassador to France, has not commented on the Libyan stance. She told journalists that “synergy” between herself and the 193 UNESCO member states would help to create “more inclusive, just, and equitable societies through sustainable economic and social development, based on science, innovation and new technologies.”

She said she was personally dedicated to gender equality, and that UNESCO could deliver more on the education of women and girls. The group’s member states include several countries where there is systemic discrimination against women.

“That will be a challenge for her to deal with as a woman head of the organisation,” said Raj Isar, professor of global communications at the American University of Paris, and former director of cultural policies and of the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture at UNESCO.

Isar told IPS in a telephone interview that there were also other pressures facing the organisation.

“What UNESCO needs is the same thing that’s necessary right across the UN system – news ways to function in today’s globalised, digitised world,” he said. “All these organisations were created in 1945, and the world has changed a lot.

“The whole ethos is based on the games that international diplomats and people play as representatives of governments. But that’s not necessarily the best thing in today’s world.”

Bokova will head a Paris-based secretariat of about 2,100 civil servants from more than 170 countries. She will have to deal with reforms instituted by her predecessor, Koïchiro Matsuura of Japan, who led UNESCO for 10 years.

Considered uncharismatic but pragmatic, Matsuura cut staff and the number of field offices, and was successful in getting the United States to return to the organisation in 2003 after it withdrew in 1984 in protest at some member states’ criticism of the West.

Bokova said she would continue Matsuura’s reforms with “conviction and vigour”, while working for “less bureaucracy, more accountability and more transparency.”

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