UNESCO director-general: I’ll push for linguistic balance


The newly-elected director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, presented to EURACTIV in an interview her ambitious plans for the organisation, responsible for promoting education, science and culture throughout the world. She attached special importance to francophony. 

Irina Bokova is a career diplomat. She served as her country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and was responsible for European integration.

She was speaking to Georgi Gotev. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Congratulations on your election, Ms. Bokova. This must be an extraordinary success for you and for your country Bulgaria. How would you analyse the victory? 

It is indeed a success for the ideas I’m trying to give life to, through Bulgaria’s activities during recent years in UNESCO, and not only here. I think this is also a victory for Eastern Europe, and it is even more symbolic, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the arrival of an East European at the helm of such an important organisation as UNESCO. 

I would like to believe that my campaign messages have gone through. Those were messages of positivism, of tolerance, of respect for other candidates, of the fact that our organisation needs common efforts, especially in the fields of multicultural dialogue, of understanding between peoples, of mutual respect between civilisations, of efforts to build unity in diversity. I would like to add, and I don’t think it’s a small detail, that I consider it important that for the first time this organisation will be led by a woman. I am proud to be that woman. 

Did Bulgaria become stronger by joining the EU? As a diplomat, you must be in a good position to make a judgement. 

Yes, without any doubt, Bulgaria is much stronger inside the Union. But I must say that I was Bulgaria’s candidate, from the beginning [of the election procedure on 7 September] to the end. Without any doubt, at an advanced stage of my campaign, after the departure of the two other candidates from EU countries, that is, Ms. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, a political personality I hold in high esteem, and also of the representative of Lithuania to UNESCO, Ms. Ina Marciulionyte, I was able to mobilise large European support. 

By the way, I warmly thanked Ms. Ferrero-Waldner, who was kind enough to call me on the telephone to congratulate me. But I also obtained support outside the EU, as I secured 31 votes [against 27 for Egyptian candidate Faruq Hosni in the last round of voting held on 22 September, among the 58-member UNESCO executive board]. Answering your question, the support of a majority of European countries was very important for this victory. 

This is not the first time that you have benefited from European support. As Bulgaria’s ambassador to France, you actively campaigned for the freedom of Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya, and you gathered substantial backing, including from Ms. Ferrero-Waldner on behalf of the Commission. 

Without any doubt, as bilateral ambassador, I have always felt the support of France, its help and its friendship, as well the support of all the EU ambassadors. I had the chance to expresss this in front of the EU ambassadors yesterday [22 September]. I reminded them, by the way, that Ms. Ferrero-Waldner received one of my country’s highest awards for her contribution to Bulgaria’s EU accession, and in particular for her contribution to the release of the nurses, a contribution the Bulgarians will never forget. 

You speak several languages, but took the floor in French following your election. Why? 

I took the floor in French, because not only is it one of the EU’s working languages, but because I am my country’s ambassador to France, because Bulgaria is a member to the International Organisation of Francophony, because I fight for the balanced use of English and French as working languages, and because I intend to promote this principle in UNESCO. 

Your main challenger was a representative of Egypt, a situation which generated debate as it opposed a European candidate against a candidate from the Arab world. You say you don’t intend to promote divisions between civilisations? 

Absolutely not. I consider that there is no such division, there has been no such division over my campaign, my campaign did not divide, it was directed toward all the world’s regions, which includes my Arab friends. During my campaign I visited three Arabic countries, although I knew they were supporting Mr. Hosni. I told them I respect their decision, but I came to express my consideration for the Arab world, for its role and its weight on the global scene, for the contribution of this millenary civilisation to mankind’s heritage. I consider that such division has no grounds, and if doubts persist, I would immerse myself in dissipating them. 

I would like to add that I was in contact just now with Mr. Hosni, that during the campaign we developed friendly relations, and that we pledged that whoever wins, we will continue to work together. He called to congratulate me and we told each other again that we will go on working. 

What king of reforms are you going to promote in UNESCO? 

I will continue the reforms which the outgoing director-general Mr. Koichiro Matsuura started, to improve the organisation’s management based on transparency and accountability. This is even more important, as I see it, in these times of crisis. With a rather modest budget compared to our ambitious goals, we need an effective and performing administration, and I have the ambition to achieve this goal. 

Another aspect is that we need to re-calibrate some of our priorities, some elements of the UNESCO mandate, from the point of view of current challenges. I’m referring to the role of UNESCO in science, innovation, new technologies, communications, of the contribution of UNESCO to the response to climate change. We must bring our contribution to areas where our organisation is the leader. 

Are you going to try to improve the way UNESCO communicates with the rest of the world? 

Without any doubt. This is part of better management. An organisation which produces results, which fulfils its mandate, will have better visibility and will communicate better. When UNESCO becomes more visible, it will also become more influential. 

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