What Happened to UNESCO's Sense of Humor?

UNESCO Secretary General Irina Bokova defends organization's position on Palestinian membership.

In Basel, Herzl founded the Jewish state? At the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, some observers declare, the Palestinian state was founded. Be it the realization of a sweet dream or the dark scenario of a nightmare, one thing is clear: October 31, 2011 will go down as one of the most historic and momentous days in the history of Palestine.

This is the day on which it became a full member - the 195th member - of UNESCO, the UN's education, science and culture organization, which is considered the most important framework of the international intellectual community. It is also the day on which the U.S. (and Israel in its wake ) announced that in response it was suspending its membership fees to UNESCO, which is nearly one-quarter of the organization's budget; and this is also the day on which the organization consequently found itself in one of the most severe crises it has ever known.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova - AP

Situated in the eye of the storm is Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, a former foreign minister of Bulgaria, professional diplomat and expert on arms control. Bokova, 59, was elected to the position in 2009, and became the first woman and the first representative from Eastern Europe to head the organization. She won out over the Egyptian culture minister, Farouk Hosny, a confidante of President Mubarak who was considered the leading candidate. The candidacy of Hosny, who was accused in the course of the campaign of anti-Semitism, also triggered a storm of emotions in Israel. He lost to Bokova only after a long and tense international battle, following five rounds of voting.

Bokova proved that she is fashioned of material capable of withstanding wars of attrition and nerve-racking processes. However, the organization she heads suffered an abject failure in a trifling, and mainly bizarre test: About a week ago the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, was summoned to the head of the organization's Middle East section, Eric Falt, who submitted to him an official letter of protest. The reason: a cartoon by Eran Wolkowski that appeared in the November 4 edition of Haaretz. In it are Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, briefing pilots in advance of an attack on Iran. "On your way back you are to bomb the UNESCO branch in Ramallah," Netanyahu is saying to the pilots.

"Cartoons of this sort should be viewed as incitement that endangers the lives of our people," Falt complained to the astounded ambassador.

How could you even imagine asking a government that operates in a democratic regime to intervene in the work of an independent newspaper? Haven't you made a joke of yourselves?

"Ambassador Barkan was not summoned in order to bring about government intervention against the newspaper. But you may be right - maybe we lost our sense of humor here. It stems from the difficult period we are now going through, from the troubles that we have come up against in the organization, which caused a situation in which the mere posing of the possibility of bombing UNESCO offices in Ramallah was a cause of worry to us.

"In any event, you can be certain that we treat freedom of expression with all due seriousness. We have proved this by actions, as well: This year, for instance, we marked World Press Freedom Day. We organized a highly important conference in Washington, and we also actively support Iranian journalists who were sent to prison after they expressed criticism of their government."

Didn't you make a mistake when you did not prevent the dispute with the U.S., even if you are essentially convinced that you are right?

"Of course, the situation now is politically complex and the difficulties in the financial management of the organization are numerous and serious. It is our intention to invest special efforts in order to persuade public opinion and the establishment in the U.S. that continuing the vigorous American activity in UNESCO is a strategic interest of the U.S. We share mutual values and we have shared objectives, for example, the struggle for freedom of expression in the world. Similarly, our joint program for teaching literacy in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous other programs meant to ensure the functioning of the democratic regimes and civil societies there. The fact that the U.S. has not withdrawn from UNESCO [as it did in 1984] proves that it itself views the organization's activity as an important national interest."

How do you emerge from the crisis? Will you be compelled to cancel projects and fire employees? Are you trying to enlist alternate funding sources?

"We are talking about a genuine threat. The U.S. decided to immediately stop paying its membership dues to the organization. We are therefore lacking $65 million, which is 22 percent of our total budget. We have been forced to reduce our activity until the end of the current year. I hope the U.S. will reconsider its decision soon, but I believe that in any event we will manage to overcome the difficulties: First, we are now at the peak of reforms, in a process of belt-tightening and reducing management expenditures. We will continue to do so to an even greater extent.

"We have also decided to establish an emergency fund intended to raise new contributions. In addition, I have met with Her Highness Sheikha Mozah of Qatar [who serves as a UNESCO's special envoy for basic and higher education], and she promised to help us implement our education program and the development programs of poor states, primarily in Africa, such that we will not suffer from the loss of the American funds.

"We will also have to talk with the other Arab oil producers. Some of them support our activity in other realms, and I hope they will expand their support of us. In addition, I have signed an agreement with Malaysia, which has for the first time become a donor country to UNESCO. It will contribute $5 million to our programs.

"I also hope that EU members will increase their contribution so that we will overcome the gaping hole in our budget, and we will continue to fulfill our most important assignments."

What do you think about the steps that Israel decided to take in response to the Palestinians' joining the organization, including freezing the tax funds to the Palestinian Authority and cancelling the VIP certificates of several of its leaders?

"The position of the UN has always been to prefer the path of dialogue. In principle, we are opposed to punishment moves against communities or nations."

Universal values

Except that you yourself were quoted as saying that UNESCO would be compelled to freeze its program to commemorate the Holocaust in schools around the world. Revenge for revenge?

"I never said any such thing. The opposite is true. I said that Holocaust education would continue to be one of the organization's most important issues, and that this subject should be disconnected from any political consideration. For a long time, I asked Israel to send us an expert to help us in the application of a Holocaust study program, and he indeed came to us not long ago. UNESCO will also continue to mark the annual Holocaust Day on January 27. We will do so not in order to curry favor with Israel, but because of the important value that we wish to pass on to the next generations."

The Palestinians intend to use their membership in UNESCO as a springboard to additional international institutions, on their way to realizing the ultimate goal, that of international recognition of their sovereignty. Would you be pleased to enter the history books as a sort of "Balfour of the Palestinians"?

"I am more humble than that - I don't have any pretensions of historical grandeur. In any event, the decision to add the Palestinians wasn't mine, but rather the member states of the organization. It was they who set in motion the inter-governmental processes, and it is they who make the decisions. My responsibility is manifested in the management of the organization and protecting its universality and its important values."

Still, there are those among your critics who charge that you "signed a deal with the devil," or at the very least that you did nothing to forestall this development, and you did so out of narrow motivations having to do with your ambition to assure yourself a second term in the organization.

"That's speculation. The ambassadors of the members states of the organization know very well how much effort I've invested in finding a solution to the complicated situation. I flew to Washington for meetings with representatives of the administration and Congress, and I also met representatives of Jewish organizations - AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith. I explicitly told the representatives of the Arab states in the organization that I understand the significance that they attach to adding the Palestinians to UNESCO, but that it is my obligation to ensure the future of the organization and what happens to it in the wake of this addition.

"The way I see it, UNESCO is important to Arab states but it is also important to Israel and the U.S. The organization provides a critical platform for dialogue and discussion. It is not coincidental that the U.S. returned to UNESCO following the events of 9/11. It did so precisely because it wanted to take advantage of our platform for carrying on a new type of interstate relations."

Every vote is political

Would you also accept into the organization controversial territories like Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia if they were to take the sort of initiative the Palestinians took?

"You are talking about political decisions that are reached in accordance with the various positions of the countries. So this question should be directed at them."

Nevertheless, you do have influence. You can at least try to prevent the adoption of a decision.

"I do have areas of responsibility, of course, and I act accordingly when there is a need for it. For instance, when I decided last year to move the venue of International Philosophy Day from Tehran to Paris. I can also exert pressure on states so that a decision can be adopted unanimously. That is what I recently did regarding a decision that was passed about the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of the Old City of Jerusalem. In such cases I could, of course, claim that I would have a hard time implementing the decision if it were not unanimously adopted. But by no means could I prevent the adoption of a decision by the member states."

How is one to understand the fact that countries that did not support the Palestinian initiative in the Security Council, France for one, supported it in UNESCO. Is there a differentiation made between culture and politics?

"Every vote here is political."

In that context, some people in Israel fear that the Palestinians will seek to declare historic sites like Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian heritage sites. Can we expect to see a revisiting of the "Goldstone scenario," this time in the realm of culture and safeguarding the patriarchal heritage?

"The Palestinians have already submitted a request to sign the World Heritage Convention, and I hope that is what they will do. But again, this is precisely where it can be said that Israel's continued activity in the organization is needed. If Israel isn't here and is not active, the territory will be left in the possession of those who voice the counter-arguments. It is also important that Israel continues to work in partnership on our various projects, which are meant to bring reconciliation with its neighbors."

If so, how do you explain the fact that Israel was not included in the organization's most recent Science Report. Was Arab pressure responsible for this?

"No. After all, not all the UNESCO member states were mentioned in the report. Nevertheless it troubles me, because of Israel's important status and its accomplishments in the realm of science, research and development, for which we have very high regard. I invited the Israeli science minister, Daniel Hershkowitz, to come here and I assured him that we would present Israel's capabilities at the first opportunity. We are very proud of the fact that Israeli scholars have been cited by the organization as notable personalities. For instance, Professor Ada Yonath received the UNESCO award for women in science a year before she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. We became a corridor for the Nobel Prize, and that is most certainly a source of pride."