Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Political wrangling

Fierce competition took place this week in the elections for the next director-general of UNESCO, writes David Tresilian in Paris


After what has been an unusually heated campaign, members of the executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) met in Paris on Monday to elect the body’s next director-general.

The first round of the elections, taking place among the 58 members of the organisation’s executive board, saw the Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Kawari coming first with 19 votes, followed by the French candidate Audrey Azoulay at 13, the Egyptian candidate Mushira Khattab at 11, and the Lebanese candidate Vera Al-Khoury Lacoeuilhe at six votes.

In the second round of voting, taking place on Tuesday evening, Al-Kawari again came first, this time with 20 votes, followed by Azoulay on 13 and Khattab on 12.

There were a further five candidates in the election, two of whom had earlier withdrawn. In Tuesday’s second round of voting, the Chinese candidate Qian Tang, currently assistant director-general for education at UNESCO, received five votes, as did the Vietnamese candidate Pham Sanh Chau, the country’s ambassador to the organisation, followed by Al-Khoury Lacoeuilhe on three.

Under the rules of the UNESCO executive board, voting for the organisation’s director-general takes place every four years by secret ballot. Several rounds of voting can be necessary to identify a winner, who must receive an absolute majority (at least half) of the votes cast.

Having failed to elect a winner in the voting on Monday and Tuesday, fresh rounds will be held until one emerges. As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the Qatari candidate looked to be the favourite.

Responding to the results of the first rounds of voting, Spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry Ahmed Abu Zeid said that there were “many question marks” about the lead taken by the Qatari candidate.

“It was not expected that the Qatari candidate would gain that number” of votes, Abu Zeid told Egypt’s state TV, adding that some African countries sitting on the UNESCO executive board had perhaps not understood the “importance of supporting the African and Egyptian candidate” Khattab in the early rounds of voting.

This year’s election of a new director-general follows two terms at the head of the UN organisation by former Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova. Her tenure, the first by a woman and a candidate from the former Soviet bloc, was marked by controversy when the United States, the organisation’s largest financial contributor, froze its contributions to the budget in 2011 following a vote by the UNESCO General Conference to admit Palestine as a member.

Regulations in the US prohibit the US government from funding organisations that recognise the state of Palestine. The organisation lost a considerable portion of its regular budget as a result of the US decision, forcing it to shrink some programmes.

Candidates for the post of director-general of UNESCO, one of the most high-profile posts in the UN system, hope to be responsible for the day-to-day running of an organisation mandated to help decide and implement UN policy in crucial areas such as education. It also manages widely recognised programmes such as the World Heritage List of cultural and natural sites deserving of international protection.

While the effective withdrawal of US financial and other cooperation from the organisation was a significant blow overshadowing Bokova’s tenure, her successor is likely to inherit an organisation facing even more significant challenges, including within the UN itself as the Trump administration in the US steps up attacks on the UN in general and on basic principles of international cooperation.

Speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde last week, Bokova said that her successor would need to know “how to raise funds and bring people together.” UNESCO was an organisation that was “a dream for the world”, she said. However, it faced formidable “financial and political difficulties”.

Last year, UNESCO came under joint US and Israeli fire when members of the organisation’s World Heritage Committee, responsible for the management of World Heritage Sites across the globe, voted to retain the site of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls on its List of Heritage in Danger. It also criticised Israel for refusing to allow UNESCO experts to access the site.

UNESCO attracted Israeli fire for criticising Israel’s management of Palestinian religious sites and notably for referring to the religious sites in East Jerusalem by their Arab names of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Al-Haram Al-Sharif. In July this year, UNESCO placed the old city of Hebron in the Occupied Palestinian Territories on its List of World Heritage in Danger, criticising Israeli management of the site.

No Arab country has held the post of UNESCO director-general since the organisation’s foundation after World War II, but this year’s elections have seen Arab countries make up almost half the candidates, including the frontrunners. Azoulay, though formally supported by France, is of Moroccan descent and her father was an advisor to former Moroccan king Hassan II.

However, this unprecedented Arab representation among the candidates has not led to increased consensus. Khattab, a former minister and diplomat, told the French magazine Le Point that there had been “a tacit agreement that [France] won’t present a candidate for the director-general job.” Criticising the French decision to enter Azoulay as its candidate, she said that “it was understood that the next mandate would be awarded to the Arab world, which has never held the post.”

Yet, this understanding, if understanding it was, has not extended to agreement on which Arab candidate should gain the post. An earlier attempt by former Egyptian minister of culture Farouk Hosni to be elected director-general in 2009 was defeated, opening the way to Bokova’s first four-year term. According to Al-Kawari, speaking to Le Monde last week, he, and not Khattab, is simply the best-qualified candidate.

Al-Kawari is a former Qatari diplomat and was the country’s minister of culture from 2008 to 2016. According to his vision statement for UNESCO, presented to the organisation’s executive board earlier this year, if elected director-general he will give the UN body a “new momentum”, notably by helping to secure its financial future as well as by reforming its governance.

Khattab’s presentation, mentioning her work as a former secretary-general of Egypt’s National Council and Motherhood and a former minister of state for the family and population, highlights her work on education and human rights and her experience of international diplomacy. Azoulay’s biographical and vision statement highlights her experience in the French public sector and her role as a former French minister of culture.

There have been reports in the French media that Qatar has sought to influence the election through donations to UNESCO extra-budgetary programmes and all-expenses-paid trips for members of the organisation’s executive board to Doha.

The result should be known by the end of this week, when the executive board will pass on its recommendation for the next director-general to the organisation’s General Conference that meets in November.

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