The agency responsible for protecting world culture, supporting scientific advancement and promoting education, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, finds itself at the center of a controversy this week, as its executive board begins a week-long process to replace its departing director-general, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria.
The organization’s 58-member executive council convened at its Paris headquarters on Oct. 9 to begin voting on seven candidates, from Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, France, Lebanon, Qatar and Vietnam. There was initially no clear favorite, but after Monday’s first round of voting the former Qatari culture minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari was in first place with 19 votes, ahead of the former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay with 13 and the Egyptian diplomat Moushira Khattab with 11.
Qatar’s candidacy has raised concerns in various quarters. First, Qatar is in the unenviable position of having alienated and antagonized several of its closest Arab neighbors by supporting militant groups across the region and interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. Qatar’s harboring of dozens of people and organizations who are on the terror lists of several countries surely raises questions about its commitment to preserving world heritage and promoting intercultural understanding. In addition, Qatar has used unorthodox tactics in its effort to win the leadership of UNESCO by relying on professional lobby groups.
“I’m one of very few people in the world who have received three honors from three different French presidents. I’m the favorite, and I’m going to be elected,” Al-Kawari told the French newspaper Le Monde. French media also report that Qatar invited several members of the UNESCO executive board on an all-expenses-paid trip to Doha.
UNESCO’s work includes designating world heritage sites such as Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia, and the historic tombs of Timbuktu, which it helped to rebuild after militants destroyed them. The agency also works to improve education for girls in developing countries.
Nevertheless, like virtually all UN affiliates, it is no stranger to controversy. Some of its policies have been deemed objectionable to some member states and have resulted in a serious financial crunch for the organization, as member countries made their displeasure known by reducing or cutting financial support. For example, Japan threatened to withhold its 2016 dues after UNESCO included documents submitted by China on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in its “Memory of the World” program.
The new leader of the UN’s cultural agency should come from a country that exemplifies its noble mandate, but early voting is not encouraging.
Greater impact came from the United States’ cancellation of its contribution in 2011 in protest at a UNESCO decision to grant Palestine full membership. UNESCO has since been forced to cut programs and freeze hiring.
Voting for the organization’s director-general continues through the week until a candidate wins a majority. The choice is then submitted to the UNESCO general conference next month for final approval.
When asked what qualities her successor would most need, Bokova replied: “The ability to raise funds and unite.”
Given that UNESCO stands for such noble causes, one hopes that it will be led by a person who truly exemplifies its commendable mandate.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer