On Tuesday, UNESCO announced the results of voting to determine the new director-general of the body. (UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and promotes collaboration in science, culture, education and the arts. They also, among other duties, name World Heritage Sites; VQR is located at one of them.) Much has been written about the aspirations of Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian cultural minister, who has made pledges to burn Israeli books, called Israeli culture “inhuman,” and stymied efforts to translate Hebrew books into Arabic. That, combined with his presence in an oppressive regime dedicated to censoring and imprisoning writers, journalists, and bloggers, would seem to make him unqualified for the job, but shockingly, he was considered one of the leading candidates. (I wrote a bit about Hosni a couple weeks ago and included links to some articles about him.)
Fortunately, the voting delegates came to their senses and awarded the leadership of UNESCO to Irina Gueorguieva Bokova, a former Bulgarian foreign minister and current ambassador to France. But it was close—31-27—and Bokova still has to be confirmed by the general assembly (a likely formality). In the aftermath, there have been accusations of unfair lobbying. Hosni has shown himself to be a poor loser, complaining that he lost because of “Zionist pressures.”
While it would be wonderful to have an Arab or Muslim head of UNESCO, electing Hosni would have rewarded an illiberal politician from an oppressive dictatorship with a poor record of reaching across cultural and political boundaries. And if we are concerned about firsts—there has never been a UNESCO chief from the Middle East—consider that Bokova is both the first female UNESCO head and the first from Eastern Europe. A “big tent” attitude, such as that advocated by Roger Cohen, is admirable, but that is not an excuse to compromise standards or to place the leadership of a large organization in incapable hands. We have seen in the past how the admission of states with poor human-rights records has politicized and distorted the UN Human Rights Council. Unfortunately, UNESCO, with its important duties of protecting cultural treasures and its efforts to work independently of political boundaries, is not immune from such pressures. Electing Hosni would only have added to them.