UNESCO Vacancy a Political Battleground

In September, UNESCO, the Paris-based educational, scientific and cultural subsidiary of the United Nations, will elect a new director general for the next four years; but what started as almost a foregone conclusion has become another typical battle over a hotly contested senior U.N. post.

The original front runner to succeed outgoing UNESCO head Koichiro Matsuura was Farouk Hosni, Egypt’s culture minister. According to informal U.N. rules of regional power sharing, the new director should come from the Arab world. But Hosni became a controversial figure following a statement last year that he would “burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries” if he could.

Book burning is not exactly a suitable sentiment in a candidate with ambitions to direct global efforts to further culture, science, education, climate change, women’s rights, as well as preserving world heritage sites. Hosni’s comment angered Israel and the Bush administration; the German press, and a group of Jewish intellectuals in France called on him to withdraw his application.

Hosni apologized in an article in the French newspaper Le Monde, but by then the damage had been done: other member states sensed an opening and put forward competing candidates. UNESCO has 193 member states, but the 58-member executive board oversees the selection; and a candidate needs 30 votes to get the job. Experts predict several preliminary rounds of voting to whittle down the present list.

For the first time there are women candidates: Austria has put forward Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external affairs commissioner, and the Bulgarian government is fielding its current ambassador to UNESCO, Irina Bovova. Then there’s Ivonne Baki, the speaker of the Ecuadorian parliament and a former Ecuador ambassador to Washington, and a younger generation insider from Lithuania, Ina Marciulionyte, who was chair of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Yakovenko came in as a last minute candidate — possibly, observers believe, to upset claims by Bulgaria and Egypt that Moscow backs their candidate. Other male aspirants include Sospeter Mohongo, a geologist from Tanzania, former Algerian foreign minister Mohamed Bejabuf, and Nourein Tidjani-Serpos, a UNESCO assistant-director general from Benin.

Andreas Westerwinter, lately deputy British delegate to UNESCO, recently named Marciulionyte as “the most qualified candidate from a technical perspective.” But qualifications matter less than politics and individual national interests. Secret vote swapping, in which one country trades its UNESCO vote for another country’s backing in another U.N. contest, is one factor that makes it extra hard to make accurate predictions about the outcome.

Ironically, Israel has gone silent on its opposition to Hosni, reportedly in return for Cairo’s agreement to cooperate on detecting and destroying tunnels used to smuggle rockets into Gaza from Egypt.

Obama administration sources say the United States is officially not applying its considerable leverage within UNESCO to support any candidate. Washington, however, does not hide its continued opposition to Hosni — which may not bode well for future U.S. relations with this influential organization in areas of great significance to the Obama administration. Why? Insiders say Hosni already has 26 committed votes.