With the admission of Palestine, UNESCO shows again it is over-politicized and running out of control. The U.S. should head for the exit.
(Page 2 of 3)
UNESCO’s warped attitude toward Israel showed again in its ham-fisted condemnation last fall of a political cartoon. Published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, it depicted Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister briefing pilots before an imaginary attack on Iran, telling them to target UNESCO’s office in the West Bank on their way back—a joking reference to Netanyahu’s anger over the admission of Palestine. Within hours, a UNESCO assistant director general solemnly summoned Israeli Ambassador Nimrod Barkan and handed him an overwrought official protest saying, preposterously, that the cartoon “endangers the lives of unarmed diplomats.” Barkan merely reminded him that Israel enjoys a free press. “We’ve heard of Islamists raging against supposedly disrespectful cartoons,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman commented, “but UN officials going down the same road, that’s a whole new ballgame.”
THAT BLUNDER WAS ONLY a peccadillo compared with the ludicrous mess last year over filling an opening on the UNESCO committee that deals with human rights issues. The mind-boggling choice: Syria. No matter that the UN’s own High Commissioner for Human Rights recommends that the regime of Bashar al-Assad be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. That includes slaughtering some 5,000 demonstrators, including 300 children, and arresting 14,000 in its recent crackdown on opposition protests.
This grotesquerie was created by manipulating the organization’s skewed procedural rules. Syria was elected to the executive board two years ago, and all members have the right to sit on its committees. Once the Arab bloc decided for its own reasons to put Syria on human rights, it was a done deal. “It’s shameful for the UN’s prime agency on science, culture, and education to take a country that is shooting its own people and empower it to decide human rights issues on a global scale,” says Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, an independent human rights monitoring group. Commented Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “UNESCO continues to outdo itself with stunning displays of irresponsible and dangerous behavior. The selection of Syria to serve on a UNESCO committee responsible for human rights is an affront to those suffering at the hands of tyrants all around the world. The Administration must continue to follow U.S. law and withhold funds to UNESCO so our tax dollars are not used to support this increasingly irresponsible agency.”
Attempting to distance itself from the gaffe, UNESCO quietly let it be known that Director General Bokova actually disapproved of the choice but had her hands tied. That only underscored that Bokova, a soft-spoken, graying, grandmotherly lady of 60, has a tiger by the tail. In reality the organization is run by the volatile, unpredictable, pliant general conference, and the 58-member executive board that sets the conference agenda. The Arab-African bloc has an automatic 20 votes on the board, and can easily find another 10 from emerging nations for a majority to push through policies predictably anti-Western, or utterly irrational, like the vote on Palestine. However well-intentioned, Bokova is powerless to control or prevent its rogue actions.
Elected in 2009 as UNESCO’s first woman director general, Bokova was a member of Bulgaria’s Socialist—formerly Communist—Party, as well as ambassador to France and UNESCO itself. She had served as Bulgaria’s foreign minister under Premier Zhan Videnov, who did little to clean up the country’s post-communist cesspool of organized crime and corruption. She is a convert to press freedom—she certainly did not learn it from her father, who edited Bulgaria’s main, party-lining communist newspaper. Like many of the privileged of her generation, she studied at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations, later doing stints at the University of Maryland and Harvard. “I am from this cold war generation that lived through this period; we didn’t choose it,” Bokova told the New York Times defensively before her election. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Her election was symptomatic of the penchant of multilateral organizations for choosing the least common denominator. She is certainly not the strong, decisive leader UNESCO needs to keep the rambunctious executive board and general conference from riding roughshod over it. But in one respect at least, Bokova’s election helped UNESCO avoid another spectacular calamity.
Her only rival for the position, backed by the Arab-African bloc, was the Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosny. Hosny’s record for promoting culture and defending human rights was of the Middle Eastern variety. He had declared he would personally burn any Jewish book found in Egypt’s great Alexandria library. He also boasted he had helped organize the 1985 escape of the Palestine Liberation Front hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, the charmers who shot the disabled American Leon Klinghoffer and shoved him overboard in his wheelchair. This being UNESCO, Hosny almost became its director. Arm-twisting and threatening, Egypt and its allies on the executive board managed to push the election to five rounds of voting—unprecedented in the organization’s history—before Bokova narrowly won. That a thug like Hosny could come within a hair of UNESCO’s top job speaks volumes.
ITS STATE PRIORITIES are also revealing. Number one on the official list is Africa, followed by gender equality. Only then come proper core activities like education, ethics, and intercultural dialogue. So no one should be surprised if the African tail wags the UNESCO dog. Official documents are peppered with the phrase “especially in Africa.” Its Cultural Commission considers that intercultural dialogue mainly means raising awareness of the slave trade, slavery, and the African diaspora. The general conference last November proudly expressed its official satisfaction with the publication of the eight-volume General History of Africa, “making this masterpiece of UNESCO one of the major intellectual achievements of the 20th century [sic].”
This order of priorities can lead to the occasional crack-up. Most spectacular in recent memory was the $3 million UNESCO Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, set up in 2008. Never awarded, it was suspended in 2010 after protests ranging from Nobel laureates and press freedom groups to human rights defenders around the world. How could such a generous, euphonious, impressively named prize with the worthy goal of encouraging scientific research cause such a brouhaha?
Consider the donor. President Obiang, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea with a despotic hand since taking power in a coup 30 years ago, is justly renowned for rigged elections, arrest and murder of opposition leaders, muzzling the press, and what a UN special rapporteur termed “inhuman conditions” and “systematic torture” in the country’s prisons. Along with this goes, naturally, unabashed corruption in the use of the country’s abundant oil wealth for himself and his family. Appropriately enough, the $3 million prize money was delivered to UNESCO in cash.
When protests over this transparent attempt to improve a brutal dictator’s image became too embarrassing, Bokova called for the prize to be withdrawn in 2010 and said she would not be involved with it. Furious backroom politicking followed. Western diplomats, typically scared of looking colonialist or, quelle horreur, anti-African, took a back seat and left it to the sub-Saharans to annul the prize and return the money, presumably in small-denomination banknotes. The Arabs said they would support any decision by the Africans. Those worthies said the prize must be awarded.
There things stand, with UNESCO still holding the $3 million—Obiang refuses to take it back—and scheduled to take up the question again in April. Bokova, being against the prize after being for it, was left looking compromised. As a longtime secretariat member told me privately, “There was a very strong feeling here that it was wrong to accept it, just as we were against admitting Palestine. But these things get done anyway, despite what we feel is right.” Clearly out of control, it’s anyone’s guess what this outfit’s next caper might be.
Compared with the missteps of priority Africa, priority gender equality looks innocent enough. Of course women and girls should be taught to read and write, and UNESCO has programs in that field. And they should certainly be protected from discrimination, though it’s hard to see what UNESCO does about that except preach the good word. But in its effort to please feminist zealots, the organization inevitably ends up looking more than a bit silly. As when it slavishly altered UNESCO’s slogan to read, “Building peace in the minds of men and women.”
It has become a one-stop shop for everything on the feminists’ shopping list, plus some pleasant surprises. Do media women in the Maghreb need courses in “gender sensitive scriptwriting”? It held a workshop in Casablanca for that. Do downtrodden female philosophers need to “write free from the looming gaze of an imaginary, universal, male reader”? There’s a Women Philosophers’ Journal where they can. And while writing, they can refer to the UNESCO “Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language” pamphlet, with its gross cartoons showing male chauvinists ruthlessly dominating helpless females. It is surely helpful to women raising children amid poverty and disease to know that “human power” is better than “manpower,” “wife and husband” preferable to “man and wife,” “intrepid child” tops “tomboy.”
OF ALL UNESCO’s countless programs, the World Heritage List is by far the best known. The 936 properties in 153 countries, including 21 in the U.S. from Yellowstone to the Statue of Liberty, are selected as being “of outstanding universal value.” When the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted in 1972, it was to ensure that important natural and manmade sites were not wantonly endangered—a worthy cause to be sure.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?