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22 Oct 2017 - 26 Feb 2018
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Tough times ahead for UNESCO’s new chief
2 days ago
The election of a new UNESCO director-general came just as the US and Israel announced they would leave the organization. The timing of the withdrawal is too suspicious to be considered coincidental. It could be that these two countries felt that an Arab candidate was about to win, a situation that Israel in particular would never have approved of.

In the end, French candidate Audrey Azoulay became the new director-general of UNESCO. After five rounds of balloting among members of the organization’s executive board and a further nail-biting run-off between the runners-up from the first four rounds, Azoulay was eventually declared the winner.

It is true that UNESCO is based in Paris and that France, the country of culture and enlightenment, is a natural leader in the field of cultural heritage. However, the French candidacy goes against the long-held practices of UNESCO, which does not support a nominee from the headquarters country. Nor do these practices allow a country to hold the position of the organization’s director-general more than once. Azoulay is the second person of French nationality to hold the post.

The principle of rotation should have been honored. In addition, since UNESCO’s inception in 1946, an Arab country has never held the directorship of the organization, and it was high time for this to happen in the form of Egypt’s highly qualified Moushira Khattab, a former diplomat and minister, who eventually finished third.

With the election of Azoulay, many, especially in Israel, are asking if her leadership of UNESCO will influence the organization’s policies. UNESCO has voted on a number of resolutions favoring the Palestinians over recent years that Israel and the US have condemned. Last year, UNESCO voted in favor of a decision that Israel claimed denied any connection between the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Judaism.

In May, UNESCO described Israel as an “occupying power” and condemned illegal Israeli activity in occupied East Jerusalem a month later. The Israelis were angered once again in July following the designation of the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, a site stormed regularly by Israeli settlers, as a Palestinian World Heritage Site under threat from Israel.

Will UNESCO under Azoulay continue to fight for what’s right? Will it continue to call out Israel as an occupying power?

She says her first priority would be to “restore the credibility” of the organization and the “confidence of its member states”. To reach that point might entail a softening of UNESCO’s position towards Israel to appease the US which decided to withdraw because of concerns at mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and what Washington says is continuing anti-Israel bias. One of Washington’s biggest problems with UNESCO is what happened six years ago when Palestine was recognized as a full member of UNESCO despite intense opposition from Israel and the US. Amid that furor the US cut more than $80m worth of funding to the agency.

Though the challenges she faces in the wake of the US and Israeli withdrawal remain immense, it may be that Azoulay is well-placed to mend some fences. She appears to have emerged as an acceptable compromise candidate. Her biggest task will be to remain fair while hitting hard when she has to.

It is possible that having kept her distance from the divisions that showed all too clearly during the UNESCO vote may now assist her in calming the waters. She certainly has the credentials, as she was appointed minister of culture under former French President François Hollande. However, it seems unlikely that her background and general acceptance in themselves will be enough to persuade the US or Israel to return to the organization. Like all UN bodies, UNESCO is but what its members make it. Its membership of 195 states is beyond the director-general’s influence.

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