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Elections UNESCO / 2 : more than just culture, but less than just politics


Parue dans le numéro de Juillet/Août 2009 de la revue « politik und kultur », le journal du Deutscher Kulturrat (Fédération des associations culturelles en Allemagne), Andreas Westerwinter nous livre avec précision et clarté une synthèse de la situation relative aux prochaines élections de l’UNESCO.

Cette première diffusion de ce texte en France dans sa version anglaise, fait le point sur une situation qui, comme nous l’indiquions récemment, n’a hélas toujours pas réussi à massivement mobiliser ni les médias, ni l’opinion de notre pays.

L’importance de ce qui se joue ici n’autorise pourtant aucun détour du regard car, comme le titre de l’article l’indique : s’il ne s’agit de rien de plus que de culture, ce n’est rien de moins que de la politique.


UNESCO – more than just culture, but less than just politics.

The UN Specialized Agency for Education, Science and Culture elects its new Director-General in autumn 2009. The official deadline for nominations ended on 31 May 2009 with nine official candidates proposed by Member States. Four of whom are women. It is thus possible that UNESCO will for the first time in history have a woman as Director-General. “Just about time”, some repeat quietly. Just as it is time to give someone from Eastern Europe or the Arab world a chance add others, mainly interested parties from these regions of the world.

Discussions flared up recently, when several French intellectuals protested that the next chief of the World Cultural Organisation should not be an anti-Semite. Rarely has the slightly stuffy World Cultural (and Education, and Science, etc, etc, etc) agency excited such attention in the German and international press. Whereas in Germany the debate took place on the cultural parts of the press, it reached immediately the political and opinion pages in other countries.

Diplomats in Paris (and other main and secondary UN capitals) have been talking up a storm for months about what might happen if the incredible were to happen, namely to elect a politically controversial candidate.

The Member States’ interests in UNESCO are as varied as there are members (193). And it is not just about culture, science, and education, since UNESCO is part of the larger UN family where Realpolitik and deceptive diplomacy are often at loggerheads. A fool who were to think of the world culture organization as a place of cultural actors. In reality it is just like anywhere else a place to exert power, even though it is often more difficult to count the legions or to provide evidence for the power plays.

UNESCO’s work is subtle and often quite invisible due to it’s bureaucratic nature, and thus of little use to journalists. Nothing is newsworthy about heritage experts spending years banging their heads collectively and universally, trying to figure out how to protect historic cultural landscapes. Unless of course these experts decide to put Dresden on the “in danger” list. UNESCO battled unsuccessfully for decades to install tsunami warning systems in the world’s oceans, yet it only reaches the press when it turned out these system were still not deployed due to lack of funding in 2006 in the Indian Ocean. Quiet work in educational policies is only recognized in donor countries outside the expert circles, when a Western country asks UNESCO for a condemnation of perceived regression in the Afghan educational policies for girls and young women – an initiative that was recently attempted, but quickly undercut through politico-diplomatic counter-pressure.

In these areas of World Heritage, educational policy or scientific cooperation, UNESCO does not only bring together experts around the table, but also diplomats. It happens easily that a country might propose a “deal” in order to save one site or another (from entering the danger list). Or one deals with purely political discussion before a backdrop of “World Heritage”, as happens frequently in the Middle East. Here lies one of the problems with Farouk Hosni’s candidature. But also some of the others.

What happened ? By now all international newspapers have reported on the longtime Egyptian Minister, who “misspoke”. Counter interviews have since been published and it seems as if the discussion about the UNESCO DG elections have now developed into a kind of clash of civilizations between East and West (for or against Israel). For several months now one can hear from Arab and especially Egyptian sources that a refusal of Hosni bid to become DG would not only be an affront against the Arab world, but it would also be seen a signal from the West not to be refusing Dialog with the Middle East.

The candidature by the current Austrian EU External Relation Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner , rendered public only a few days before the deadline, has added additional oil to the fire. Mean voices from acute observers in Paris have commented that the only idea the West seems to have come up with to counter the supposed Arab book burner was to present an Austrian (soon to be ex-) Commissioner who enjoyed a cozy coalition government with the rightwing and xenophobic Jörg Haider in Vienna. Images of Turks in siege of Vienna are mobilized that could only damage UNESCO in every sense. The Austrian press is not making things easier for the candidate. It is reported almost every day that the ÖVP (Austrian Conservative Party) just likes to “promote” Ms Ferrero-Waldner away from Brussels to clear the way for a new Austrian Commissioner since Mr Barroso did not give her the next post she had eyed for some time. Local Vienna human resource tactics are now mixed in with world politics, which will not make electoral decision making any easier.

What happens next? In September 2009 the 58 members of the UNESCO Executive Board will interview all candidates behind closed doors. Before that date, all candidates are invited to submit a 2000 word vision document presenting some ideas for a UNESCO of the future. Then all candidates will be discussed in private session and secret ballot elections are then called. It is common practice in the UN that electoral promises negotiated between countries and vote swaps for different posts in the UN determine the vote casting in the first round. Given arrangements such as “If you vote for me at UNESCO, I will vote for you at the World Trade Organisation”, the qualifications of the different candidates are frequently of secondary consideration.

« Geopolitical considerations » often enter front stage when it comes to elections in the UN, as the Brazilian foreign minister Amorim explained when he had to defend his country’s support for the Egyptian candidate instead of a Brazilian one. Similar points were made in the French press when former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, characterized Farouk Hosni as the best candidate. Just as frequently as it is underlined now by the Egyptian side that the candidate from Cairo has the support from President Sarkozy, the spokesperson for the Quai d’Orsay denies any such support. It is also stressed that the French-Egyptian agreements might go back to the nomination of Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Head of the International Monetary Fund, where briefly afterwards Boutros Boutros Ghali’s nephew and current Egyptian minister of finance was elected to a leadership position. Other voices advance that French concerns about the future of the Union for the Mediterranean (vice-chair in Hosni Mubarak), had already signaled two years ago vague support by France for Farouk Hosni. This is now being read as a formal wedding announcement by Egypt. Wherever the truth may lie, there are endless possibilities to swap votes. A situation to let US campaign managers for Presidential elections go pale with envy. And in case the French should not stand up to their promises, the Egyptians will most likely ask the restitution of the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, as the Italians have just so brilliantly demonstrated in the case of Aksum (with a lot of quiet UNESCO diplomacy)….

If in the first round a candidate obtains 30 votes, he or she is elected. Yet since this is most unlikely, another three rounds of elections are foreseen where each candidate can withdraw or stay quite confidently in the race no matter how many countries they have mobilized. And this is where things become exciting: It is now time to negotiate the transfer of votes and possibly another post for the candidate who withdraws. It is only in the fifths round that the two best placed candidates are pitched directly against each other in order to allow for an unambiguous nomination to the UNESCO General Conference in October 2009. Here all 193 countries can either confirm the nomination or ask Executive Board to present a new candidate within 48 hours in case the candidate does not obtain the necessary majority. A few countries have already made their intention known that they would never support a nomination for Hosni by the General Conference.

Who stays put? Who should act? Who will probably not move? All this turns into a good game of poker where strong nerves, the right feeling, a dose of charm and strong pressure from capitals will be needed in order to impose oneself in the end. Cynics say all this is salon diplomacy, but in reality it is an important opportunity to get the UN out of yet another cul-de-sac.

So what is all this fuss about and what’s at stake? The election of a politically controversial candidate would block UNESCO for years to come. Many of the reforms implemented with much insistence by the current DG Matsuura would be lost at once. But not only could a politically controversial candidate be dangerous for UNESCO. It would take any inexperienced manager several months to clear through UNESCO’s bureaucratic jungle and it highly unlikely that a candidate without international experience will understand the internal power games for new posts or old programmes when too many insiders will offer their advice to show the new Director-General the way.

Who are the candidates and what do they have to offer?

Farouk Hosni has been minister of culture in Egypt for over two decades. He presents himself a long list of achievements he claims to have reached. Critics recall though that some of the important cultural projects he was supposed to realize with UNESCO support – such as the Great Museum of Egyptian Civilisation – have been delayed for many years and will not see the light of the day any time soon. Affairs of corruption in his ministry have kept the press busy without surprising anyone. Apart from political concerns, questions are raised whether Hosni as UNESCO chief would be able to administer an annual budget of almost 500 million.

Hosni himself identifies Benita Ferrero Walder as his strongest competitor. Observers say, this does not happen without the hope to turn a possible habsburgo-arabic clash of cultures in his favour. In addition, voices in Vienna describe the candidature as local folklore and personnel politics. But finally the Austrian needs to face a deadly counterargument in any UN election: her Electoral Group 1, i.e. Western Europe and North America has already fielded too many Director-Generals in the past and should be more modest. A number of Arab colleagues in Paris underline not without a knowing smile that a former UN Chief of Protocol in New York should know better about these unwritten rules in the UN.

Further voices pipe in questioning the candidate’s motivation and qualification. Concerns among informed diplomatic circles in Brussels point out that the lofty title of EU External Affairs Commissioner is really a bit self-promoting when it is really some kind of Super-Chief of Protocol of the European Commission: The Spaniard Xavier Solanas makes the actual foreign policy decisions, the development money lies with the Belgian Louis Michel, trade policies were made by the Brit Peter Mandelsohn, and all other important issues were dealt with by the boss Manuel Barroso himself. In all this there was not much left that could qualify the Austrian junior commissioner for UNESCO. And she also made herself not too much liked when she obstinately tried to sanction the EU sanction against her country during the ÖVP-Haider Koalition as then Foreign Minister.

Besides the Arab Group, Electoral Group 2 also reminds everyone that they have never had a Director-General. Here are two female candidates who want to present themselves as inside experts on UNESCO matters. The Bulgarian Irina Bovova is Ambassador to France and to UNESCO. As a career diplomat and briefly foreign minister she brings experience as well as political support to her bid. The latter fact is also being criticized by some: Voices in Bulgaria and in the West characterize her frequently as a member of the communist nomenclatura (Studies in Moscow in the 1970s, father as member of Communist Party Central Committee). Close ties to the current government in Sofia are also raise concerns as Bulgaria is frequently criticized by Brussels for lack of transparency when dealing with EU funds. (Her brother Filipp served as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister after having been advisor to the President). Ms Bokova is however widely acknowledged as an experienced diplomat who can talk to all interested parties in situations of conflict.

Also from a new EU Member State is Ina Marciulionyte. A political generation younger than her Bulgarian competitor, current Lithuanian Ambassador to UNESCO was very active in the independence and democracy movement of her country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a journalist and Director of the Open Society Institute in Vilnius she represents the new Eastern European politics since 1989, which put her in charge of UNESCO issues when serving as vice-minister for culture. Since being appointed to Paris, she was Chair of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee – just like the current Director-General – and is currently one of the Vice-Chairs of the UNESCO Executive Board. Some of her critics say she is too young to be DG, to which the candidate answers not without a touch of humor that she’s only a year younger than President Obama and does not even ask for nuclear weapons. Sources inside UNESCO describe her as the most qualified candidate from a technical perspective and also as a very hard working ambassador, who has intervened in many difficult situations.

The Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Yakovenko came as a last minute surprise candidate. A career diplomat who knows the UN business for many years, he has attended UNESCO meetings regularly over the years. There is no detailed election programme presented by Moscow’s probably most senior multilateral diplomat, but Western countries have been concerned in recent years about Russian proposals to include UNESCO work in the area of energy policies. The West is not particularly keen on opening yet another UN forum where Russia could possibly put pressure on such delicate issues. It is also rumored openly that Russia was simply upset because Bulgaria and Egypt both claimed to have Russian support for their candidates. Those who would not want to hear a diplomatic no, would have to recognize quite practically that Russia does not support any of the other candidates.

Latin America also puts forward a woman: The Ecuadorian Ivonne Baki. Former Minister and Ambassador in Washington, of Lebanese origin, she is seen by some as the West’s answer to Farouk Hosni. Little is known about Ms Baki. She will be President of the Andean Parliament until fall 2009. Voices in Latin America but also in Washington are getting louder questioning her involvement in possible business deals. Others simply ask what management qualities the candidate would bring in the areas of science, culture and education, other than being a passionate painter herself.

Two African candidates have entered the race, apparently in order to stop Hosni from claiming unanimous African support for his bid. Sospeter Mohongo (Tanzania) is a geologist and currently regional director of the science umbrella organization ICSU. NouréiniTidjani-Serpos (Benin) is UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Africa. Both are expected to withdraw after the first round once it has been avoided for Hosni to pass. It is equally not Africa’s “turn” to present a Director-General.

A courageous candidate, Mohamed Bejaoui (nominated by Cambodia) stays in the race despite reportedly having received threats against his life. “It’s a matter of personal honor to participate in these elections”, says the man who learnt in the 1930s Hölderlin thanks to an Alsatian school master in a colonial lycée. Former Algerian foreign minister and President of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Bejaoui, is also seen as one of those candidates, who is mainly in the race to set up obstacles to Farouk Hosni. But nobody would say this publicly.

Things will remain interesting in Paris.

Andreas Westerwinter

Former UK Deputy Permanent Delegate to UNESCO 2006-2009

L’article dans sa version allemande est téléchargeable ici.

Nous proposerons prochainement une version française de ce texte.

Filed under: Analyses, Politiques culturelles, ,

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