Troubled UNESCO begins picking new leader

Key task for new head of UN cultural body is to regain US funding, suspended over perceived anti-Israel bias

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, October 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
UNESCO headquarters in Paris, October 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS, France — The board of the UN’s cultural body on Wednesday began vetting eight candidates vying to head an organization accused of bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and foot-dragging on reforms.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization infuriated Israel and its staunch ally the United States by granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

Both countries suspended their funding to the agency — best known for its prestigious World Heritage List — over the move.

Most recently, the Paris-based body delighted Palestinians when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered World Heritage site.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the vote “another delusional decision” by UNESCO, which promotes quality education and cultural development around the world.

Lebanon’s candidate to head UNESCO, Vera El-Khoury, August 2016. (CC BY-SA Tomason2020, Wikimedia commons)

Vera El-Khoury, Lebanon’s candidate to replace outgoing director-general Irina Bokova, warned that UNESCO’s credibility would suffer if it did not “reduce the excessive politicization of its proceedings that has sometimes turned it into a powder keg.”

A diplomat told AFP that “all the candidates agree on the need to find a way to end this politicization.”

Bring back the US

The US funding cut dealt a particularly heavy blow to UNESCO as Washington’s contribution represented nearly a quarter of its budget.

Francois Chaubet, a contemporary history professor at Paris University, said one of the main challenges for the new director would be to “bring back the United States.”

Japan also cut funding after lashing out at UNESCO’s decision in 2015 to recall the 1937 Nanjing massacre of Chinese by Japanese troops in its Memory of the World register.

“The organization has always been torn by influence struggles, notably during the Cold War and the decolonization period,” Chaubet said.

Most of the candidates acknowledge the need to reform the 71-year-old organization whose bloated bureaucracy is accused of inefficiency.

Assistant Director-General for Education of UNESCO Qian Tang, January 2015. (CC BY Unescoadged, Wikimedia commons)

Qian Tang, China’s candidate who is seen as one of the frontrunners, called for “comprehensive reform” in an op-ed in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

Tang, UNESCO’s current assistant director for education, said its programs “need to be much more focused” while its “administrative procedures have to increase transparency and accountability.”

Bulgaria’s Bokova, whose second four-year term ends this year, was embarrassed last month by allegations her husband received at least 425,000 euros from an Azeri company linked to a slush fund used to pay off European politicians.

Secret ballot

Arab countries have complained that UNESCO has never had a boss from their region.

However, UNESCO does not observe a traditional rotation by world region for its chief, unlike for the UN secretary-general.

Egyptian candidate to head UNESCO, Moushira Khattab, May 2010. (CC BY Mahmoud Khattab, Wikimedia commons)

Besides Tang, French former culture minister Audrey Azoulay and Egyptian career diplomat Moushira Khattab are among the favorites to head the agency.

The other candidates are from Azerbaijan, Iraq, Qatar and Vietnam.

The executive board, which has 58 member states, will begin electing a nominee by secret ballot on Monday.

If no candidate wins an outright majority after four rounds of voting, it goes to a run-off between the top two.

The candidate must then be approved by UNESCO’s 195 member states, but this is seen as a formality.

Israel’s gift to UNESCO head

Last month Israel handed a replica of a frieze from the Arch of Titus to Bokova, using the monument commemorating Rome’s victory over Jerusalem for a not-so-subtle critique of the organization’s resolutions that ignore Jewish links to the holy city.

Bokova accepted the gift — crafted by the Art Conservation Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority — as “recognition of the strength of our partnership with Israel, and as a promise of a deeper cooperation in the future.”

At the event Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, said “When the executive board of UNESCO adopts a resolution every six months that denies the connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, they are not only adopting a political resolution, they are adopting a resolution that negates the right of the State of Israel to exist and the Jewish people’s right of self-determination.”

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, with cultural agency’s director-general Irina Bokova, September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

Jerusalem, Bokova said, is sacred to the three monotheistic religions, “and nowhere in the world more than in Jerusalem do Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions share space and interweave to the point that they support each other.”

Referring to the Temple Mount by both its Hebrew and Arabic names — Har Habayit and Al-Haram al-Sharif, respectively — she noted Jerusalem’s universal value to all three religions.

Said Bokova: “Too often we see the rise of exclusive discourses, trying to distort and cut our heritage in pieces, in endless disputes about what belongs to who, to this culture or another, about whose heritage is the greatest, the oldest, the holiest.”

She always tried to work with all UNESCO member states to “strengthen the spirit of coexistence,” she said. “It is not always easy, but there is no other way.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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