Monday, September 21, 2009

Tomorrow is a very important day for UNESCO's future

Tomorrow will be the fifth and final round of voting for the new Director General of UNESCO. The Executive Board has voted four times, reducing the original slate of nine candidates to the final two: Irina Bokova and Farouk Hosny. On the fourth round these two were tied 29 votes to 29 votes -- the 58 countries represented on the Executive Board split down the middle.

Tomorrow will see either the first woman and first citizen of a former Communist nation elected of the first Arab. It is seen as quite important by the international community that high level positions in intergovernmental organizations not be monopolized by any country or cultural group.

The Director General of UNESCO, like the President of the United States, serves a four year term, and can be reelected once and only once. Thus the new UNESCO Director General, who will take office in November (after ratification of the Executive Board Choice by the General Conference in October), may well have a term of office closely linked in time with that of Barack Obama.

For UNESCO, the next few years should be critically important.
  • The benchmarks for the Education for all program and the Millennium Development Goals were set for 2015, and UNESCO should lead the global effort over the next few years to set new global objectives for education.
  • The new international climate convention under negotiation should add new urgency to UNESCO's scientific programs, especially those focusing on understanding water resources, biological diversity and the oceans.
  • The need for UNESCO-moderated, inter-cultural dialog continues to be acute, not only in Africa and the Middle East, but in Asia, between Russia and the West, between the emerging economic powers and the established economic powers, and in Latin America.
  • The Information Revolution continues to underlie global aspirations to achieve a global information society -- aspirations which UNESCO can help member nations realize through its functions as a clearinghouse for ideas and a catalyst for cooperation.
All of these priorities would appear also to be priorities of the U.S. Government, and specifically of the Obama administration.

Irina Bokova is currently the Bulgarian Ambassador to France and to the Principality of Monoco as well as Bulgaria's Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. In this latter role she has gained considerable expertise about UNESCO. She has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria and early in her career on the Bulgarian delgation to the United Nations in New York. In 1991, after the fall of Communism, Ms. Bokova served as a member of the Constituent Assembly helping to write the new Bulgarian Constitution. She was a founder, and served as Chairperson from 1997 to 2005 of the European Policy Forum, a civil society organization. She has written a number of scholarly publications. Initially educated at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, she was later the recipient of a two year NATO fellowship on democratic institutions, and has studied at the University of Maryland and Harvard University. She speaks English, Russian, Spanish and French as well as her native Bulgarian.

Farouk Hosny is currently the Egyptian Minister of Culture, a position that he has held for some 22 years. Early in his career he served as Egyptian cultural attache in France for seven years. He also served in several roles in the Egyptian cultural program in Rome, including as Director of the Egyptian Art Academy and as Cultural Councelor for the Egyptian embassy. He cites major achievements of the Ministry of Culture during his term of office including development of Pharaonic archaeology, the creation of a new museum and the Library of Alexandria, a nationwide system of local libraries, and a national literacy program. He is an abstract artist whose works have shown internationally. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alexandria. He speaks Arabic, French, Italian and English (which he describes as "fair")

In contrast to that of Irina Bokova, the candidacy of Farouk Hosny has been very controversial. Two issues have been especially frequently treated in the media (both of which have been denied by Minister Hosny):
  • He has been subject to charges that he holds anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli views. He has stated that he opposes the normalization of Egyptian-Israeli relations that would lead to a restoration of cultural exchanges until progress was made in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
  • There is also opposition based on the record of censorship of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture during his administration.
Both candidates have been campaigning hard. Ambassador Bokova has visited 45 countries, making presentations to senior officials of those nations in company with senior representatives of the Government of Bulgaria. Minister Hosny has been campaigning for two years, with the strong support of his government.

Prior to the irruption of the controversies over Government Hosny, he was thought to be the front runner in the race, in large part due to support of Arab, other Islamic and African nations that had been sought be the Government of Egypt.

In the first four rounds of voting, Minister Hosny's support grew from 22 to 29 votes. In those same rounds, Ambassador Bokova's support grew from 8 to 29 votes. Essentially, as candidates with fewer votes withdrew from the race, most of their supporters went to Ambassador Bokova rather than to Minister Hosny.

The State Department does not announce publicly its votes in United Nations elections since they are to be held by secret ballot. However, it is widely believed that the U.S. delegate has opposed the Hosny candidacy.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed in this posting are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.)

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