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UNESCO being punished for a mistake it has not committed – UNESCO Director-General | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Brussels, Asharq Al-Awsat – In a lengthy interview with Asharq Al-Awsat conducted earlier this week in Brussels, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] Director-General Irina Bokova spoke about the financial difficulties that the international organization is facing after it granted Palestine full UNESCO membership in October, prompting Washington to take the decision to freeze its UNESCO funding. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova also spoke about Palestine’s UNESCO membership, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas scheduled to hoist the Palestinian flag outside of UNESCO headquarters later this week, in addition to her hopes for the future of the UN cultural agency, and other related issues.

Irina Bokova is a Bulgarian politician who has been UNESCO Director-General since September 2009. She was a member of the Bulgarian Parliament for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and also served as Bulgarian Foreign Minister in the socialist cabinet of Prime Minister Zhan Videnoy.

The following is the full text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The subject that is most preoccupying the Arab world today is the crisis in Syria, particularly as the death toll there continues to grow. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has strongly condemned what is happening in Syria. What is UNESCO’s position on the Syrian crisis? How is the situation in Syria affecting UNESCO operations in the country?

[Bokova] The UN Secretary-General’s primary responsibility is to the UN, and so he must take into account issues such as security, peace, and human rights. Therefore, it is natural that he would strongly express his position and beliefs [on the Syrian crisis].

As for UNESCO, it is not part of our mission to monitor political problems across the world, nor do we have the means to do so. Despite this, I can say that the situation in Syria is a great source of concern for us, firstly because there is a large number of victims, as you mentioned, and also because what is happening there threatens stability in the region. As part of our [UNESCO] mission, I recently issued a statement on freedom of expression, the persecution of journalists and the right of access to information in Syria. This is something that is extremely important from our point of view. I will not conceal that I am very concerned in this regard.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the issue of respecting human rights in Syria, particularly as this is one of the values defended by UNESCO?

[Bokova] I share the UN Secretary-General’s concern [about the situation in Syria], and when he takes a position he is doing so in the name of all organizations belonging to the UN.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are UNESCO operations continuing in Syria at this time?

[Bokova] No. There was a project that aimed to develop a “new” cultural policy, linking culture to development and continuing efforts to establish new museums in Syria in cooperation between the French Louvre Museum and the British Museum. UNESCO’s role was to identify the features of this new cultural policy…however this project has been halted.

In addition to this, we provided grants to a number of students from the occupied Syrian Golan Heights region…and we are today revisiting whether we will continue this project or end it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] UNESCO sources have claimed that the US – along with other Western countries – is trying to “punish” Syria via UNESCO. Is there any truth to this?

[Bokova] I do not have any information in this regard. This is a matter relating to UNESCO member-states, rather than the UNESCO administration.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However from a legal standpoint, does UNESCO have the means to do so?

[Bokova] No. We do not have the means to do this; we are not the UN Security Council. I do not see, from a legal standpoint, how UNESCO could be capable of this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Next Tuesday, you will participate in a ceremony – along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – in raising the Palestinian flag amongst the other UNESCO-member flags outside of UNESCO headquarters in Paris. What does this occasion mean to you?

[Bokova] I believe, and hope, and dream, that this occasion will encourage and mobilize all forces for the sake of peace and towards reaching a better future in this region that has suffers numerous crises and tragedies. I hope that UNESCO, which has been hailed by some for its acceptance of the membership of Palestine, and criticized by others for the same reason, is capable of putting a new brick on the road to peace and respect of human dignity. If this does happen, UNESCO will be proud of its achievement. On the other hand, if this decision results in an increase of tensions, this will be unfortunate, particularly for UNESCO. What I want to say is that we today are at the heart of this political storm.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] From a practical standpoint, how will Palestine benefit from UNESCO membership?

[Bokova] I believe that the acceptance of Palestine as a full member of UNESCO will allow it to take advantage of all the available opportunities for cooperation with UNESCO. However I would like to note that we were strongly cooperating with the Palestinian side [prior to its UNESCO membership]. The Palestinian authorities have also announced that they intend to sign the convention on the protection of world heritage sites, and everything else that has to do with regards to the cultural and educational sectors. In addition to this, Palestine’s membership of UNESCO will grant it the opportunity to participate in international cooperation agencies, science agencies, and water agencies…I believe that this will allow Palestine to avail itself of everything that is presented by UNESCO with regards to civil and scientific cooperation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has been said that Palestine will seek to add a number of Palestinian cultural and historic sites to the list of World Heritage Sites. Is this true? Will their UNESCO membership facilitate this?

[Bokova] Of course, Palestine can sign the UNESCO statue whenever it wants [Palestine later signed this on 25/11/2011]. After this, it can propose what sites it wants added to the World Heritage Sites list. However there are procedures that must be followed and respected in this regard.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] This means that Palestine no longer needs to utilize another UNESCO member to put forward initiatives to protect a certain historic site?

[Bokova] From the moment that they sign the UNESCO statute, the doors will be open.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The UNESCO General Conference’s decision to accept Palestine’s bid for full membership has caused some political tension within UNESCO, and this has also had financial implications following the US decision to immediately freeze their financial contributions to UNESCO. How has this affected UNESCO operations?

[Bokova] Firstly, I would like to make it clear that I do not believe that there is political tension within UNESCO, but we are indeed facing a serious financial problem. I believe that every UNESCO member-state has the right to decide – in a sovereign manner – the nature of its voting, which is something that has several considerations. A number of UNESCO member states publicly stated that its vote in favor of Palestinian membership of UNESCO would not mean that it would vote in the same manner if the issue of recognizing the Palestinian state is raised in New York [at the UN General Assembly]. Whilst other states that abstained from voting or voted against [Palestinian membership of UNESCO] said the opposite and justified their vote saying that UNESCO is not where international recognition of the state of Palestine start from, but rather this should begin in New York. What increased the complexity of the situation is that the UNESCO vote [on Palestinian membership] coincided with the introduction of the resolution on the recognition of the Palestinian state in New York. I would go as far as to say that the US itself, which was forced to freeze its financial contributions to UNESCO due to a law that dates back to the 1990s, did not once say that it would withdraw from UNESCO. On the contrary, the US was elected as a member of the UNESCO Executive Board following the voting on whether or not to accept the Palestinian membership bid. In my opinion, this means that there is no political tension within UNESCO. My responsibility and hope is to preserve the global nature of this organization. It is true that the voting was political, and dealt with an important [political] issue, but this did not affect our operations, and I believe this must be our first priority.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the issue of financial contributions to UNESCO?

[Bokova] We are in a difficult financial situation. I am not talking about a “financial crisis”, but the situation is difficult because Washington had not paid its contributions for 2011. This contribution is up to $65 million for the current year, whilst for 2012 the US contribution reaches $72 million. If we add to this, the financial contributions from outside the budget, this is more than $100 million. This is a huge sum of money for UNESCO, which was not expecting to face a situation such as this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can be done today?

[Bokova] I think firstly we must seize this opportunity to carry out reform within UNESCO. The crisis facilitates reforms in order to reduce administrative costs. We must consider what we can achieve with regards to savings and restructuring the organization. I had begun with this prior to the crisis and we need to accelerate the process today and focus on UNESCO’s main priorities, and use all our human and financial resources to achieve this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What priorities are you talking about?

[Bokova] Our participation at the climate conference in Durban, for example, has been reduced to a minimum. This is unfortunate. In Iraq, we have been forced to halt some programs we established with regards to clean water as their funding was from America. In addition to this, our presence on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere will be dramatically cut because our budget has decreased by 25 to 30 percent…which means that all our activities will be affected.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you in contact with the American side? Have you tried to convince Washington to retract its decision to freeze UNESCO funding?

[Bokova] Yes…I am working on this with all UNESCO member-states, who I urge to increase their financial contributions by funding projects outside of the general budget of the organizations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the Americans?

[Bokova] I will return once more to Washington in this regard. However I previously visited the American capital between the UNESCO Executive Board recommendations and the General Conference’s vote on the Palestinian membership bid because I saw this risk in advance. In Washington, I spoke with the US administration, members of Congress, and Jewish organizations and I called for a change in the law that forced the US administration to cut its UNESCO funding. I know that changing the law is difficult, however we must continue to exert effort in this regard because I believe that continued funding [of UNESCO] is in the interests of the US itself, and its withdrawal from UNESCO is not in Palestine’s interest or in the interests of the Arab states. UNESCO must continue as a global organization and as a space for dialogue, negotiations, searching for solutions to problems in the modern world.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any hope that Washington will respond to your request and resume its financial contributions to UNESCO, particularly now in the run-up to presidential elections?

[Bokova] First of all, the US administration fully supports UNESCO. I have no doubt about that. This support does not just include the current US administration, for former US president George Bush is the man who returned the US to UNESCO in 2003. I believe that the US joining the UNESCO Executive Committee demonstrates this. In addition to this, the statement issued by the US State Department which announced the freezing of financing said – in the second paragraph – that US commitment to UNESCO is in the US national interest, and that is very important. There is a problem of legal procedures and a problem of how to convince some US Congress members who are not enthusiastic towards the UN or UNESCO, either because they are not fully aware of what UNESCO does, or because they are under the influence of old stereotypes about UNESCO from the 1990s. We must show them that UNESCO has undertaken internal reform and changes and modernization and it is carrying out important works, in addition to what we are doing in the field of cultural dialogue and combatting extremist and promoting tolerance…which is all in the interests of the US.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However operationally speaking, how will you convince the US Congress of this?

[Bokova] I don’t have an answer to that. We must continue in our efforts, explanation, and dialogue….I explained, for example, to a US member of congress that what we are doing in Afghanistan with regards to educational projects is not just for children, but we are also teaching members of the police and educating them, and this is something that serves US objectives. We have arguments and convictions we must continue to put these forward.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the meantime, what is UNESCO doing?

[Bokova] We are carrying out reforms and seeking to reduce our expenses and focusing on fundamental issues, and we are particularly seeking to attract more funding from outside member-states contributions to the UNESCO budget.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you achieved any significant successes in this regard?

[Bokova] Yes, we have launched an “emergency fund” and a number of states have announces that they are prepared to pay into this. Indonesia, for example, has contributed $10 million. Gabon and East Timor have expressed their willingness to contribute to this, whilst other states said that are not capable of doing so at this present time but have expressed their willingness to finance some [UNESCO] projects. These countries include Norway and Sweden, who both finance numerous projects, including projects inside Palestine. I am in communication with the European Union, and the idea is not for them to provide us with funds but rather to fund the activities and projects that we are carrying out. I know that this type of process is complex and requires more effort on our part as well as putting forward new solutions, but this is the only way that we can continue to implement our program.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] I have spoken with a number of Arab delegates about what the Arab world can do to support UNESCO financially; however there is a general conviction that this may be viewed as tacit recognition of Arab responsibility for the financial problems UNESCO is currently facing due to the US decision. What is your view of this?

[Bokova] The problem is that UNESCO is the sole victim of this political situation, and we do not deserve to be placed in this situation. That is why I told the Americans that UNESCO is being punished for a mistake it has not committed, for the decision [to accept Palestinian membership] was taken by the member-states…and I hope that the member-states do not leave us in this difficult financial situation. That is their responsibility. Therefore, I believe that the US must pay [its contributions to UNESCO] and to exert effort to take part in financing the organization’s activities. The situation has changed, and the world no longer resembles the world of the 1980s. The US freezing its financial contributions will not solve any problems. In my opinion, this does not represent pressure on anybody except for UNESCO itself. So what was the purpose of this measure on the part of the US? I don’t know.

In contrast, I want to say that other countries taking the decision not to finance UNESCO will also not prompt the US to change its law. These arguments cannot succeed. They may be understood locally, but they will not help to change the situation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you like to take advantage of this opportunity to call on Arab states to lend their hand with regards to financing UNESCO?

[Bokova] Yes, we are working with the foundation that is chaired by Sheikha Mozah of Qatar [Qatar Foundation] in order to create a new fund that has Qatari support for our activities and projects in the education field. I am also set to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE soon, and I hope that other [Arab] states offer their [financial] assistance. In my view however, this is a duty that does not just apply to Arab states, for we are an international organization and therefore our funding should come from everybody. What Indonesia and Gabon have done in this regard deserves special mention, not to mention the developing nations who have expressed their willingness to [financially] contribute.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the rich and developed nations?

[Bokova] I hope to launch a powerful and dynamic campaign in this regard. Some states have said that they cannot provide financial contributions, but they have asked to finance specific projects. I believe that the rich Arab states can help us a lot.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about rich non-Arab states?

[Bokova] Of course, they too can contribute for their part.