France seeks to unite UNESCO after US and Israel quit

By on 19/10/2017 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO (Image courtesy: ActuaLitté).

Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay has pledged to reform and strengthen the United Nations’ cultural organisation, after she was named as its new chief in a politically-charged contest.

Azoulay beat Qatar’s candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari in the fifth round of voting by UNESCO’s governing board on Friday, after the United States withdrew from the body on Thursday accusing it of “anti-Israeli bias”. Israel immediately followed suit.

The agency’s 195 member states are expected to approve the nomination in a ballot on 10 November, in line with past practice.

“In this time of crisis, we need more than ever to support, strengthen and reform UNESCO and not leave it,” Azoulay said after the vote was announced, as reported by Reuters. “If I’m confirmed…the first thing I will do is to restore its credibility, restore the faith of its members and its efficiency, so it can act.”

Middle East flashpoint

UNESCO’s brief is to promote international collaboration on education, science, culture and press freedom, but the embattled agency has become embroiled in a series of political conflicts and controversies over recent years.

Tensions erupted in July, when UNESCO recognised the ancient city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian world heritage site, prompting outrage from Israel. The city in the disputed Palestinian territory includes both Jewish and Muslim holy sites dedicated to Abraham.

Azoulay’s candidacy was actively backed by French president Emmanuel Macron, and France’s minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian called on UNESCO members to unite behind her at a time of  “historic challenges” for the agency.

“It is now time for member states to come together around Ms Azoulay’s project to ensure UNESCO focuses on its key missions: disseminating knowledge, promoting quality education for all, protecting the heritage of humanity and the environment, empowering women and girls,” he said.

France comes through the middle

Azoulay, a high-flying French civil servant and politician, presented herself in the contest as a modernising reformer with mediation and consensus-building skills, and a global citizen who is committed to “intercultural and intergenerational dialogue”.

Azoulay, whose family is of Moroccan Jewish heritage, is a graduate of France’s prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration and served as minister of culture from February 2016 to May 2017. She played a key role in developing a resolution to protect cultural heritage sites in armed conflict zones that was adopted by the UN Security Council.

The French candidate beat front-runner Al-Kawari, who is also a former culture minister, by just 30 votes to 28 after winning an eliminating round against Egypt’s candidate Moushira Khattab.

A total of four Arab states put forward candidates, but Iraq’s representative withdrew before voting began and Lebanon’s pulled out in the fourth round. A delegation member said Egypt threw its weight behind Azoulay after Khattab dropped out, according to Agence France Press.

The four countries were aiming to secure the post of director-general for an Arab state for the first time but were divided by regional rivalries. Egypt is part of the Saudi-led coalition that severed diplomatic ties and imposed a blockade on Qatar in June over its alleged support for radical Islamists.

The Harry S Truman Building in Washington DC is the headquarters of the US Department of State (Image courtesy: AgnosticPreachersKid).

US retreat from culture body

The US is due to withdraw from UNESCO on 31 December 2018, when it will instead operate a permanent observer mission to the organisation.

Announcing the move on Thursday, US Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”

Current UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova expressed “profound regret” at the decision. China, which withdrew its candidate from the contest in the fourth round, and the European Commission both pledged continued support for the agency.

Culture wars

UNESCO, which is best known for its global programme to protect cultural heritage sites such as the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef, has been hobbled by political controversies over contested sites, artifacts, and territories.

The US cut its annual US$80 million funding to the agency in 2011, after it admitted Palestine as a full member. The Palestinian state is recognised by 136 UN members but not by the UN Security Council; it is treated as a non-member observer state by the General Assembly.

Along with more than US$542 million in back payments that the US owed to UNESCO, out of total arears of nearly US$658 million at the end of August, the funding cut has left the agency struggling with financial difficulties and retrenchment.

The US first pulled out of UNESCO in 1984 over alleged financial mismanagement and anti-American bias, but rejoined in 2002.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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