Bulgaria’s Bokova becomes first woman to lead UNESCO


Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova yesterday (22 September) became the first woman and the first East European to lead UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organisation.

Bokova was the surprise winner of a long five-round election procedure, which began on 7 September. Eight candidates ran for election, including Austria’s EU commissioner for external relations and neighbourhood policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who was outvoted in the third round. 

In the last round held in the small hours of Tuesday, Bokova beat the favourite, Egypt’s Faruq Hosni, by 31 to 27 votes. Hosni, who is his country’s culture minister, stands accused by many for anti-Semitism, following declarations that he would himself burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries if he found any. Hosni later apologised for his statement. 

57-year old Bokova, a career diplomat responsible for European integration during the mid-nineties when Bulgaria applied for EU membership, became the EU candidate after Ferrero-Waldner and a Lithuanian candidate, Ina Marciulionyte, were outvoted. She also had the support of the USA. 

To some extent, the vote opposed Arab countries, who have never held the UNESCO top job, and the Western world including the enlarged Europe. 

But Bokova immediately dismissed any cultural or “civilisation” differences within the organisation. 

“I hope that we will be all together, with the representatives of the Arab world, of course, but also with all regional groups in UNESCO, because I have never believed in the clash of civilisations,” Bokova said, speaking in French in her short statement after her election, as cited by the Bulgarian National Radio. 

“UNESCO exists in order to bring tolerance, dialogue. Its task is cultural diversity. We need a new humanism, which was the main point in my programme, ‘The New Humanism of the 21st Century,’ the Bulgarian director of UNESCO explained, adding that all of her competitors for the top job had excellent ideas that she would not hesitate to borrow. 

Vote not directed against Egypt 

Egypt in fact admitted that the vote in Paris was against the candidate, not against Egypt as a key country in the Arab world. 

“I am sure that relations between us and the countries, however they voted, will remain as they were. I don’t think they will be affected by this,” said Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, quoted by Reuters. 

“I have told the Egyptian delegation that I hope that we would work together within UNESCO because I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘clash of civilizations’,” Bokova said. 

Iconic personalities on the French political scene, such as Simone Veil, a survivor from a Nazi concentration camp and a former European Parliament president, and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, strongly campaigned for Bokova and against Hosni in recent days. 

Bokova is politically affiliated to the Bulgarian Socialist party, now in opposition, and her candidacy was put forward by the former government. 

New Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, whose party GERB is affiliated to the European People’s Party, was asked by EU countries whether he still supported Bokova. Borissov said Bulgaria was strongly in favour of its candidate, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV. 

UNESCO was established on 16 November 1945. It has 193 member states and is based in Paris. 

UNESCO has three bodies responsible for policymaking and administration: the general conference; the executive board, and the secretariat. The general conference meets every two years and sets over-arching policies for the organisation. 

The executive board consists of 58 members, elected by the general conference for four years. The secretariat-general consists of the director-general and staff. 

The director-general is elected by the executive board, then confirmed by the general conference, for a renewable four-year term. 

Two thirds of its 2,100-strong staff are based in Paris, with the remainder scattered throughout the world in 58 field offices. 

The director-generals so far have been Julian Huxley (UK), Jaime Torret Bodet (Mexico), John Wilkinson Taylor (US), Luther Evans (US), Vittorino Veronese (Italy), Rene Maheu (France), Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow (Senegal), Federico Mayor Zaragoza (Spain), and Koichiro Matsuura (Japan). 

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