The EU and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have signed an agreement unprecedented in terms of its commitment to cooperation not only in education, science and culture, but also in press freedom and human rights.
The deal to boost cooperation between the EU and UNESCO was signed in Brussels on Monday (8 October) by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.
Cooperation agreements have been put in place in the past between UNESCO and the Commission. The new agreement, however, the first since the Lisbon Treaty was enforced, binds not only the EU executive but the Union as a whole, and the content appears as more “political” in terms of commitment to universal values.
A European touch
“I see I see this signing as the culmination also of one of the priorities I set when elected director-general - to deepen strategic relations between UNESCO and the European Union,” Bokova said, who has held the post since September 2009.
“Having myself worked on the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union as the first State Secretary for the European integration, I am deeply aware of the common ground UNESCO and the European Union share,” said Bokova.
Bokova said the EU and UNESCO should work “harder and closer” in the rapidly changing environment, mentioning the economic crisis, the consequences of climate change and the challenges of the Arab Spring. To this end, UNESCO opened a liaison office in Brussels.
Among the main areas for common action, she outlined the support of freedom of expression and media development, notably in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
Piebalgs expressed hope that the focus on human rights and education would make “more of a difference in these key areas than ever before."
Both UNESCO and the EU promote human rights and fundamental freedoms as cornerstones of stability and development, the joint statement reads.
Marie-Paule Roudil, head of the Brussels office of UNESCO, told EurActiv that previous agreements had been “more administrative” in nature. In general, she said UN services were looking traditionally at the EU as the biggest sponsor of development aid. But when Bokova came to Brussels to set up the liaison office in February 2011, she committed to change this pattern and set up “a partnership based on shared values”, Roudil said.
“Some organisations see in the Union more of a financial sponsor than a promoter of values. We at UNESCO are a different in this respect,” she said.
Obiang prize crisis
Defending “values”, however, doesn’t appear as an easy task tor UNESCO, an organisation whose members include countries with dubious democratic credentials.
The agency lived recently through a crisis over the awarding of a prize, financed by the dictator of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The prize was proposed in 2008. Obiang, who took power in a coup in 1979, provided €2.32 million over five years; half the money is to go to recipients and half is to cover the costs of selecting the winners, who are all distinguished scientists.
The USA and other countries blocked the award for years, but in March, the 58-nation executive board of UNESCO voted to go ahead. Bokova opposed the award. A compromise was found - the award no longer bears the name Obiang. Instead, it is called “the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.”