Islamic Nations Try Again to Take Helm of U.N. Culture Agency

By | November 30, 2012 | 5:26am EST

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova addresses the agency’s General Conference in Paris on Tuesday Oct. 25, 2011. A week later UNESCO voted to admit 'Palestine.' (Photo: UNESCO/Eric Bouttier)

( – Unsuccessful in its previous attempt to install a Muslim as head of the U.N’s cultural agency, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) now is putting up a rival candidate in an effort to deny the current director-general a second term.

A meeting of OIC foreign ministers in Djibouti earlier this month agreed to back the candidacy of a Djibouti diplomat, Rashad Farah, for director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The election will be held late next year.

UNESCO has long been a political battleground, both during the Cold War when it was seen by critics as a hotbed of pro-Soviet and anti-Western sentiment, and in more recent years when Islamic states and their allies have sought to use it in campaigns against Israel and “Islamophobia.”

Last year it became the first U.N. agency to grant full membership to the Palestinian Authority, a step that obliged the U.S. to cut its funding (22 percent of UNESCO’s regular budget). The Obama administration is seeking a waiver that would enable it to resume contributions.

Three years ago a politically-charged election for the head of the agency saw a European, former Bulgarian foreign minister Irina Bokova, narrowly defeat Egypt’s culture minister, whose candidacy was backed by the OIC and Arab and African blocs.

The Egyptian, Farouk Hosni, had stoked controversy by threatening to burn any Israeli books found in Egypt’s Alexandria library. Some Egyptians also questioned the suitability of a candidate who for 22 years had represented the Mubarak regime, accused of censorship and violating free speech. (UNESCO’s goals include “empowering people through the free flow of ideas.”)

Lobbying by the U.S. and other Western democracies succeeded in scraping together the required majority of UNESCO’s 58-member executive board behind Bokova’s bid. After several rounds of voting the Bulgarian won by 31-27.

Hosni and Egyptian state media blamed his defeat on “Jews.”

Last September, Bulgaria’s president met with U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in New York and formally nominated Bokova for a second term when her current one ends next year. The OIC’s recent decision, however, means a contest is now on the cards.

The last four directors-general, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, a Spaniard and a Japanese, served terms of between 10 and 13 years each.

The OIC-backed candidate, Farah, is Djibouti’s ambassador to France and its representative to UNESCO, which has its headquarters in Paris.

“By its geographical position and its population, our country is a crossroads between Africa and the Arab world favoring culture of peace and dialogue among peoples,” Djibouti’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Farah’s candidacy.

‘Massive influence gap’

Bokova’s short tenure has been challenging, particularly as she has sought to find alternative sources of finance to make up a significant shortfall resulting from the U.S. funding cut.

Apart from the financial and political fallout over the Palestinian admission, she had to deal last November with outrage over a decision to reappoint Syria’s Assad regime to a committee dealing with human rights; and controversy over the awarding of a UNESCO life sciences prize sponsored by the despotic president of Equatorial Guinea.

In 2010, UNESCO planned to allow Iran to host its annual World Philosophy Day event – until Bokova, under pressure from the U.S. and others, disassociated the agency from the Tehran event.

Over the summer, a UNESCO committee voted for an “emergency” application by the Palestinian Authority to have Jesus’ traditional birthplace in Bethlehem recognized as an endangered World Heritage site – overruling the advice of independent experts and the wishes of local church leaders.

Also in July, a UNESCO decision to establish a chair at the Islamic University of Gaza, an institution closely associated with the Hamas terrorist group, drew protests from the Israeli government.

In a speech Monday to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO – a federal advisory committee to the State Department – the head of the U.S. mission to UNESCO, Ambassador David Killion, said it has been “a very challenging year for both the mission and for UNESCO.”

He argued that while the U.S. was engaged and active at UNESCO, it was “paying a heavy price” for the funding suspension.

Aside from endangering important projects like Holocaust education, he said, “the funding cutoff is also creating a massive influence gap at UNESCO – one that other countries are more than eager to fill.”

“Saudi Arabia, Qatar and China have all contributed large sums to UNESCO’s emergency fund, and we could very well see their leverage over its politics and programs grow stronger and stronger.

“These are countries that have very different ideas when it comes to subjects like girls’ education and freedom of expression.”

Killion said there was a battle underway “for the very soul of UNESCO.”

“We must not forget that UNESCO is an American design.  It was created after World War II to spread our values.  UNESCO’s constitution is based on our constitution.  The values it promotes – democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights – are our values.”

“Today, as the world grows more multipolar, emerging countries such as Qatar and China are looking to leave their mark on the international system and the values that underpin it,” he said. “We must use every tool in our foreign policy toolbox to defend democracy, liberty, and human rights.”

The U.S. was a founding member of UNESCO, but the Reagan administration withdrew in 1984, citing mismanagement and accusing it of promoting an anti-Western agenda. Britain’s Conservative government also left, although Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair took the country back into UNESCO in 1997.

In September 2002 President Bush told the U.N. that the U.S. would return to UNESCO, citing important reforms under Japanese diplomat Koichiro Matsuura, who had become director-general in 1999.

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