Bokova: My advantage is multiculturalism

Irina Bokova, in her Paris office. [Georgi Gotev]

In a wide-ranging interview with EURACTIV’s Editor-in-Chief, Daniela Vincenti, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO and candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General, spoke of her experience and goals, as well as discussed her strengths.

Irina Bokova is a career diplomat from Bulgaria. She served as her country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, where she was responsible for European integration, and is currently serving a second term as Director-General of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. She speaks English, French, Russian and Spanish fluently.

On 26 September there will be a new straw poll in the election process for UN Secretary-General.  Do you think you have done everything to convince UN representatives that you are the right candidate?

That’s a big question. Of course, I’m trying to convince them that I’m trustworthy and can do the job. There are different considerations in this race, but the most rewarding thing is that I am one of the most consistent candidates. I have constant support from the Security Council. Now I just need to convince those who don’t support me yet.

Who do you think is not convinced?

Difficult to say. I’m working with everybody. Different countries have different considerations. Sometimes it’s regional considerations, other times national. Others have more geopolitical issues to think about.

There’s been talk of making the UN more relevant than it is. To reform it, change the modus operandi. The UN needs to find adequate responses to 21st century challenges like the refugee crisis and ethnic wars. How do you think this organisation can reshape itself?

You put the finger on the core of the issue. The UN celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. It was established to prevent conflicts and forward human rights.

The people of the world wanted a different approach to resolving differences, in a peaceful manner.

UNESCO, for example, is a part of the UN and is one of its soft powers. We were established shortly after the UN itself. It was established along the lines that hard power alone could not change things. A different mentality was needed. I think this kind of mentality is at work today. We don’t have large-scale conflicts now. They are more localised.

Now, we need to rethink peace and conflict. The world order has changed. Huge humanitarian disasters and conflicts based on religious differences are the challenges we need to rethink.

The traditional ways of dealing with these conflicts are less relevant now. Enormous emphasis has to be put on preventing conflicts because we can’t prevent them with these traditional methods I mentioned. We need to have a greater understanding of what starts them.

So we need to understand conflicts much better? Do you have the feeling that we are still in a post-colonial situation, whereby outsiders are still trying to find a solution to a conflict without gathering cultural or historical intelligence to fashion tailored responses? How would you structure that kind of process?

I agree that we cannot understand the nature of today’s conflicts without more knowledge about cultural factors and historical considerations.

South Sudan is a prime example of this, where more knowledge would contribute massively to preventing conflict. That’s why I believe deeper understanding about identities and cultural reasoning is all-important.

Geopolitics and history go hand-in-hand. But the issue is hugely complex because we are in constant flux and technology is evolving. It adds another layer of complexity.

That is why I think the UN is the only platform, despite the criticism, that can achieve this. It can’t do everything, that is clear. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it more relevant. Instead of complaining about the UN, we need to leverage its instruments more effectively.

Diplomacy plays a huge part in the UN. How do you adapt it in order to give a voice to all those who are not taking part in decision-making, so that they can really play a role in prevention? 

Here, there should be different layers of intervention. On one side, of course, diplomacy matters. I’m a huge believer in it. But, multilateralism is hard work.

It’s slow sometimes, it’s tedious. We always want quick fixes, but when we get results from this process, they are always well-founded. I know that we are impatient sometimes, but it works. There are a lot of challenges, like climate change, where we HAVE to work together.

On the other side, we see a lot of fragmentation. Maybe it’s not the traditional type of diplomacy we want to see, but the positive side could be that we aren’t talking about governments these days, we are talking about people, civil society. Its role is as strong as the one of governments.

The Tunisian Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. They showed that civil society, in the right place, at the right time, can achieve much.

My point is that the UN, which is, of course, intergovernmental, is actually about the people in this day and age. There is a lot of untapped potential there. We need to give support and give people a voice.

Your wish would be to democratise, to a greater extent, the UN?

It’s the natural development. It’s the only way to remain relevant.

We are seeing a lot of nationalism and populism on the rise. Is democracy under attack?

Yes and no. It’s not a linear route, I would say. In many cases, it is in and from different groups: Populists, who don’t think democracy delivers what they think it should, people fearful of extremism (and) terrorism, and people who think autocracy is the way forward.

Fear of change is a big driver of this. Sometimes change is faster than people can grasp it. I don’t blame them, but the role of leaders is crucial. Not just political leaders. Religious, business, traditional and civil society leaders are responsible too, to promote values and give a sense of direction. But I tend to agree that democracy is under pressure.

We see what is happening in the US, which is the gold standard of democracy, and we see what is happening in Europe. Our way of parliamentary democracy is arguably under attack. How do you reconcile the need to give more say to the people, direct democracy, while maintaining some sort of representative democratic system? How do we reinvent democracy for the 21st century?

Democracy needs to reinvent itself, yes. Coming from a communist country, I have to say that as we “discovered” democracy, these issues have interested me a lot. We used to think that the Berlin Wall was the only obstacle to development, free thinking etc. I thought development would be linear. I was surprised and even shocked that there are setbacks, even on issues like gender equality.

Some say that traditional representative democracy does not give a voice to everyone and that technology does now, through the internet mostly. But we need a convergence of ideas and I don’t see any other way, currently of democracy other than elections and political processes.

The fact that democracy is under threat doesn’t mean that democratic aspirations are on the wane. I believe that it will stay as an aspiration, but it needs some sort of reinvention.

One of your main competitors, António Guterres, used to be head of the UN’s refugee agency. The refugee crisis is the main talking point in Europe, but it’s not a problem exclusive to this part of the world. It just isn’t as well covered elsewhere. How would you tackle this crisis if you were chosen to lead the UN?

I agree that, unfortunately, until this huge humanitarian crisis hit Europe, the issue of refugees was considered to be important, but was not in the spotlight of global politics.

Everybody was (used) to the fact that, yes, there are refugees elsewhere in the world. Now, probably, is the time to look at the way we look at and tackle this issue.

There are millions of IDPs (internally displaced persons), often completely overlooked by international regimes and conventions.

We have to very carefully look at why these people have been displaced. If we don’t understand why we can’t deal with the problem. For example, climate change refugees have been underestimated.

I was in the Sahel recently. Poverty, extremism, biodiversity and social exclusion, instead of inclusion, dictate the displacement of people. Has the international community sufficiently looked at these issues? I don’t think so. The dimensions of these disasters are so huge, but people are so used to it, that it is challenging to get people’s attention.

Another factor to look at is whether we have the legal framework needed to deal with refugees. We also need to have a more global outlook on these issues.

Again, people expect immediate solutions, but the good news coming out of the UN is that after difficult negotiations, there is a kind of global, common challenge that needs to be tackled in a certain way.

These issues are bundled together and need to be tackled as a package. Once again, the cause needs to be treated, while we do only address the symptoms.

On climate, we have the Paris Agreement. China and the US have ratified. Now we need to fast forward towards implementation because we are already lagging behind. How do we recuperate the time that we have lost in the lead up to the agreement?

Copenhagen was my first climate conference. It was a huge disappointment. It was a big wake-up call for some governments and civil society groups.

I think Paris was a watershed moment and the French need to be applauded for their efforts in bringing it all together. There are no excuses now. Everyone seems to be on the same page and we need to convert to a different kind of economy and society.

It is important now to set more ambitious goals. Business commitments will be crucial and they need to be sustainable. We see a lot of movement towards it.

The Green economy can be profitable. But work still needs to be done. I don’t want to see complacency. “Paris was great”, “we did it”. That’s not enough; we need to follow it through with Marrakech.

I’m fearful that there could be complacency. Praising Paris is fine, but we need to push on. Younger people are showing us the way forward.

Again, maybe I’m influenced by our work at Unesco, but we’ve done a lot of work on education in sustainable development, to make people more aware of the issues that really matter.

Have we learned enough lessons from the MDGs to make sure the SDGs are achieved?

There is a lot of unfinished business from the MDGs. We, of course, have to recognise that there has been a lot of success on the main targets.

Those targets were, in the best sense of the world, imposed. I think it’s incredibly difficult to impose policy on a country, it can be done, but participation is always better. This issue of ownership will be telling. I am optimistic. We have to aim high.

Many countries have adopted the goals into national law, even though the goals are universal. That’s a huge success. Now we have to really support LDCs and see how middle-income countries progress.

There are increasing calls for more money to be put into security and conflict prevention. Where do you think we need the real investment to achieve this?

Investing in peace is about investing in institutions, fairness, social inclusion and a culture of peace. Mutual understanding needs to be created.

SDG 16 is about inclusive and just institutions, human rights etc. If we don’t invest in the components of a fair society, against corruption, we won’t succeed. Everything linked to this is important and SDG 16 is probably the most difficult.

It was one of the most difficult to adopt in the first place. I still remember, when talking about the Arab Spring, how it started, when a young Tunisian was humiliated and the feeling of a lack of justice spread. Rising inequality in the world is very alarming. Inequality is constantly on the agenda. Education is one of the main drivers and one of the most successful ways to get social mobility.

That’s why I want education to be a public good for everybody, irrespective of background. Building peace is one thing, sustaining it is another. We build it, then it descends back into conflict. Sustainable peace has to come back to the forefront of the UN.

Peacekeeping demands a lot of resources, but there are plenty of success stories. Its image has been tarnished by a few prominent instances that came to light. The biggest political issue about peacekeeping is that it needs to be looked at through more of a politically strategic framework. Expectations need to be metered.

Hard security measures are important, but they aren’t going to achieve anything in the long-term without being put into more of a political, strategic vision.

Let me blunt. What makes you different from the other candidates? If it was just you versus Guterres in a final round, head-to-head, how would you set out your credentials?

I’m reluctant to compare myself to the other candidates, I’m sure you understand.

OK, so what distinguishes you personally?

All of the candidates are committed to the UN. That’s very important. All bring different ideas and have important experience. My advantage, maybe, is that I come from a country that is multicultural, (and) has always been between East and West.

My parents come from a town where the majority is Muslim. I know what it is to be in such an environment, how people can communicate and live in harmony. I really believe these are important qualities.

I also think that my studies in the Soviet Union and my experience of education in the US are important.

Each one of us candidates has a professional record of some sort; seven years at UNESCO has been a great educational process. And a great experience. I feel like I can really offer something, other can too, but I think I offer a wide-range of things for this job.

Authenticity allows people to create something new, innovative. Every individual is different.


EU in pole position in race for UN Secretary General

A secret vote held yesterday (29 August) in the UN Security Council has put three candidates from EU countries in the lead in the race to replace UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose second term expires on 31 December.

Subscribe to our newsletters