Thursday, October 1, 2009

UNESCO Chooses Common Sense

I had pushed it out of my mind, but it was with some relief that I read today former Bulgarian foreign minister Irina Bokova was elected to become the first woman director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). She had been, I believe, considered a long shot. No doubt she benefited from a backlash against her major opponent, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, who has been accused of anti-Semitism for his virulent public denunciation of Israeli culture. "To prove his anti-Zionist credentials at home," wrote Raymond Stock in Foreign Policy, "Hosni told the Egyptian parliament that he would 'burn right in front of you' any Israeli books found in the country's libraries." I think it would have been wonderful to have someone from an Arab country elected, but in Israel and in many places, his nomination was greeted with shock.

UNESCO’s mandate is to promote international co-operation among its 193 Member States and six Associate Members in the fields of education, science, culture and communication. The organization has, I believe, about a $1 billion budget and is responsible for locating and preserving sites of cultural significance around the world. It is an important organization and does some really great work. Hosny’s defeat will leave behind bitterness among the Arab and developing nations who supported him. However as Marty Peretz writes in New Republic, “A book burner was not the preferred symbol of leadership for an institution with a cultural mandate. Many true Arab intellectuals were mortified by Hosni's views.” Officially Israel stayed mum about Hosny's nomination and his eventual defeat, but I do think the latter was greeted with the opposite of disappointment. Let's hope Bukova can heal the wounds and that UNESCO can do its work better with less political baggage.

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