UNESCO’s role on the world stage: An interview with Irina Bokova UNESCO’S first woman Director-General

UNESCO’s role on the world stage: An interview with Irina Bokova UNESCO’S first woman Director-General


In 1965 Barry McGuire recorded the song Eve of Destruction. Fifty-two years later, reviewing events of the last decade, his words appear even more prophetic.

Currently, there are 795 million people that live in chronic hunger in a world of 7.5 billion. By 2050, we will need to feed 9 billion. Scarring has deepened on humanitarian levels: The global refugee crisis has displaced near 65.6 million. Terrorism has metastasised into peaceful regions and embedded into areas of conflict; human rights abuse has escalated in epic proportions, with no discrimination for children, women or journalists; nations’ cultural artifacts and heritage sites are ravaged, stolen and flattened. Global warming is ignored by countries in mid-crisis from its effects; natural disasters obliterate vital infrastructures, lives are destroyed indiscriminately. 2011 saw the triple disaster in Japan (seismic, tsunami and nuclear), floods in Australia and Thailand, earthquakes in New Zealand. This year Mexico, Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Italy were struck; recent terrorist casualties, 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, were forced to flee, 240.000 of them children. All whilst the world watches, in horror, the reality show, ‘Facing Off with Nuclear Weapons’ in the background. What is being done to prevent these seismic catastrophes? How are these problems being addressed? Who can help?

Enter UNESCO. The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization. Their primary responsibility is to coordinate international cooperation in education, science, culture, and communication between nations and societies. Its mandate is to defend freedom of expression and further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction of race, sex, language or religion. Over recent years UNESCO has strengthened its global leadership, within the UN System spearheading major initiatives like the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, as well as safeguarding world heritage in Libya, Mali, Syria and elsewhere. UNESCO was entrusted to steer forward major UN Secretary General initiatives including the Global Education First Initiative and UN Scientific Advisory Board In 2009 UNESCO selected their first woman as Director-General, Irina Bokova.

Ms. Bokova is Bulgarian and the first Eastern European to have taken the post. Her promotion to the role was a remarkable feat and source of inspiration to women throughout the world. 2017 is the final year of her 8-year tenure, a new Director-General takes on the role in November this year. In her mission statement in 2009 Ms Bokova called for unity between all Member States and demanded strategic vision and courage. Saying she was “determined to build a sharper, more effective, more performing Organisation to lay the foundations for lasting peace and sustainable development on the basis of human rights, dignity and justice.” Irina spoke of the need for UNESCO to become more coherent, efficient and visible in order to address the imperatives of the new, emerging world where change is accelerating. She stated she was determined to focus on leadership priorities to craft stronger more effective action to reach internationally-agreed development goals and set new global development agendas.

How far has her tenure at the helm helped UNESCO to achieve these farreaching goals?

Irina Bokova talks with KCWToday’s editor-in-chief Kate Hawthorne about some of the challenges that she and UNESCO faced during her leadership.

KH: You are the first woman and first Eastern European to be appointed as Director-General of UNESCO. That must have been quite a moment for you?

Bokova: Yes, it was very special. Being the first woman was particularly special. I couldn’t believe the huge interest that came from women everywhere when I was appointed. My election put gender, equality and women’s empowerment as a priority. It also had an impact on the organization itself. When I took over, the percentage of women working at the organization stood at around 20-30% but now it is closer to 50%. It changes the dynamic of the organization, and I would stress that gender equality is a daily responsibility. It is no longer possible to have a panel without a strong presence of women and it is not possible to have a jury or meeting without them either. I am very proud of these advances and there is great momentum.

KH: Have you found the acceptance of your role as a woman more difficult in certain parts of the world and do you feel you have made some contribution to different cultures overcoming this? Bokova: Well, I guess it goes both ways. Sometimes it is more difficult but sometimes it opens doors because people are more curious and it changes the conversation.

KH: UNESCO plays a global role in climate change matters developing integrated management approaches to water and early warning systems. How effective have these developments been in mitigating more recent world disasters?

Bokova: I would say that the experience of the early warning system was extremely positive. In the Indian Ocean, when a big tsunami hit Indonesia, Thailand and all affected regions, and there was no system to alert the population. After this, we set up a Tsunami Alert System, which is probably the youngest one in the Indian Ocean. There were already three big centres in India, Australia, and in Japan. Collaborative approaches among scientists and experts play vital roles to harmonise the standards between each centre.

Important work needs to be done and is being done to prepare the coastal communities and population through education and communication. After the Japanese Tsunami two years ago, we had a similar kind of system in place and a lot of lives were saved and a humanitarian disaster was prevented. There are now many examples where the emergency warning systems have helped the populations. The Tsunami Warning System in the Caribbean is one of the youngest regional warning systems that we put in place in 2015. In fact, we now have three systems in place in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. They worked a great deal to prepare the local communities for natural calamities.

Our Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is working to establish a global ocean observing system and global nautical system to study how typhoons are created in the open ocean. Our activity is part of a much larger project carried out by scientists and research centres as it is critical that we base policy decisions with scientific reason.

KH: How do you monitor developments?

Bokova: We are very reliant on intergovernmental coordination to assist in monitoring developments and it requires the promotion of common standards and basic practices. We want to improve our coordination with services related to the sea, ice, waves, and storms. In addition to this, we want to work better with ocean agencies and meteorological services. UNESCO contributed significantly to the adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 14 on oceans and was identified as the ‘lead agency’ for a number of targets related to marine pollution, ocean acidification and capacity building, including the transfer of marine technology. We are better placed now and expect a lot of drive from member states.

KH: Protecting freedom of speech and safety of journalists has always been a concern in high-conflict areas. How effective is UNESCO in managing this, how do you enforce, monitor and improve member states whose judicial procedures do not comply and whose reporting mechanism are failing?

Bokova: Yes, you raise a very important question that I have been taking very seriously since the beginning of my mandate. There is a resolution adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO that invites the Director-General to condemn the assassination and the physical violence against journalists as a crime against society. And of course, we must urge the competent authorities to discharge their duty of preventing, investigating, and punishing such crimes.

Unfortunately, the trend that we have seen in the last year is just appalling. We have seen more killings of journalists, 102 in 2016*. There is a deliberate targeting of journalists because of reporting on corruption and other improprieties. Every two years UNESCO publishes an important report on World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development. I think it is essential to see which direction such trends are moving and the work that journalists are doing.

We are also working on what has to be done further down the line to ensure the safe work of journalists and involve all relevant parties. It is very important that we have an effective monitoring mechanism. There is a growing recognition among our member states at UNESCO that this is a key responsibility and we are getting a much higher response rate as a result. For example, in 2014, only 27% of member states responded, but in December 2016, it increased to 65%. This year, it reached an unprecedented 70%. We need to encourage leaders to keep responding and take the necessary measures. We also need to raise awareness of legal standards. For example, we have pioneered a great deal of work with judges and members of the judiciary in Latin America through massive online courses, where we have trained more than 3000 judges in this region.

KH: So is there a regular monthly review that the different states uphold or do they report annually to a body?

Bokova: Yes, they report to us [UNESCO] and we also regularly remind them of their responsibility and their obligation to do so. As I mentioned, the response rate figures have grown amongst member states and we have reached an unprecedented 70%. This means that they are more and more engaged and our efforts have paid off.

KH: What about the states that do not respond. Are there any measures to counteract this?

Bokova: We remind them and talk to their governments. We sometimes use private or diplomatic channels to explain that they have to respond and they have a responsibility to do so. It is not just about naming and shaming but it is about engaging member states and convincing them that this is something very important. First and foremost, it is for their countries and their societies. It is a daily work that we have to do in very many of these cases.

KH: What do you see as the most effective strategies in achieving the prevention of violent extremism this in war-torn areas?

Bokova: Preventing violent extremism cannot be dealt with as a one-off. It is a very complex set of measures and action policies. We know that hard security and military measures are required in some of the cases but regarding the preventive role, we need soft power. This means that there needs to be communication and education with the local communities in order to create a dialogue. UNESCO’s role here is very important. With the UN, we have contributed to action plans to counter terrorism and we are probably the most involved agency when it comes to preventive measures. First and foremost, this pertains to education because there are some extremist forces that are trying to distort and twist young minds.

We must educate the youth population to prevent extremism. In many cases, we are reviewing text books in countries like Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government, and other countries such as Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Algeria. We are also training teachers. I was just recently in India at the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development where we are working on cognitive ways to educate children. I believe this is very important work and we have published guidelines for policymakers on how to work through education poverty as we call it. Soon, we are going to publish our new guidelines for teachers.

On the other hand, I also think the issues of cultural literacy, intercultural dialogue, and global citizenship education are very important. It is vital to learn about cultural heritage, and why it is necessary to protect it. There are often many different layers of culture within one overarching culture, and we must learn how to protect this.

KH: With regards to culture and the illicit trafficking of artifacts, what action is being done to prevent this?

Bokova: We have done a lot of important work on illicit trafficking in several UNESCO conventions. The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict plays a leading role in this respect. I am extremely pleased to say that in September, the Ambassador of the United Kingdom to UNESCO, Matthew Lodge, delivered to me the instrument of ratification. The UK has joined a very important Convention, and now we have the five permanent members of the Security Council that have become part of this Convention. The UK also signed the two additional protocols at the Convention of 1954 and 1999, which further emphasize the protection of cultural heritage against illicit trafficking.

There is also another very important convention from 1970, which prohibits the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property whether there is a conflict or not. In this case, we have had a large amount of communication with the U.N. Security Council. Now, more than 40 countries have changed their legislation or strengthened their institutions. The EU is working on the new directive to introduce new measures. As I said, the UK has ratified this important convention. I believe that we have created a global warrant stipulating that it is both illegal and immoral to traffic such goods, particularly when it comes to conflict areas. I would say that my final highlight in this work is the landmark Security Council Resolution in March this year that condemns the destruction and smuggling of cultural heritage by terrorist groups. This puts the dots together between the security concerns in conflict, the protection of heritage, and the illicit trafficking.

Our joint work to stop illicit trafficking is not just a cultural concern but it is a security and peace consideration. I want to strongly emphasize that the current conflicts are so different from the Second World War or from earlier conflicts.

KH: I know that you are standing down from your role later this year. Do you have any plans for your retirement?

Bokova: There are so many causes to support nowadays across the world. I would like to continue with the same level of advocacy through such channels and I will do it with the same sense of commitment and responsibility.

KH: What have been your most significant moments or changes during your time as Director-General?

Bokova: One of my best moments was the difference I made when the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2347 for the protection of cultural heritage. This was a very special moment for me and UNESCO. Because defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives.

KH: What has been your most demanding role?

Bokova: Perhaps when we lost funding from the United States in 2011, which is an overall 22% loss of budget. It was a huge challenge to ensure the survival of the organization after the shock of losing such funding and to maintain all our responsibilities in all areas. It was very difficult, but we did it! UNESCO has become more relevant nowadays. There is no textbook as to what you should do and not do in a conflict or war but I was truly very proud of my eight years. It has been the most fascinating time in my life.

*The list of countries and territories, the number of deaths and the facts and figures are on the UNESCO website www.unesco.org

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