By A.D. McKenzie
“May the force be with you” was one of the comments by an ambassador at the investiture ceremony of UNESCO’s new director-general, Audrey Azoulay of France, on November 13.
The “Star Wars” quotation was meant to evoke the many challenges that lie ahead for Azoulay as she takes over management of the cash-strapped UN educational, scientific and cultural agency and tries to heal internal rifts.
In the absence of a magical lightsaber (a fictional energy sword featured in the Star Wars universe), she will have to rely on her experience, diplomatic skills and the backing of member states, many of which expressed support and encouragement after her election, although they did not all vote for her.
“I would like to assure you of the support of the Africa Group as you carry out your work,” said Zimbabwe’s Ambassador Rudo Mabel Chitiga, on behalf of UNESCO’s 48 African member states. “We are very happy to note that you have roots in Africa … we therefore welcome you as a sister.”
Azoulay, 45 years old and of Moroccan descent, is a former minister of culture and communication in France. She was first nominated by UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board on October 13, with 30 states voting in her favour, against 28 for Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Qatar. There had been nine candidates at the beginning of the race in March, including three women.
UNESCO’s General Conference – the second of the organisation’s two decision-making bodies – voted on Azoulay’s nomination November 10, with 131 states in favour and 19 against (not all the organisation’s 195 member states were eligible to vote). Her investiture ceremony took place a day before the two-week conference ended, on November 14.
Throughout the process, some delegates said Azoulay had shown keen awareness of UNESCO’s precarious situation, especially as the United States and Israel have announced their withdrawal from the organisation.
It is expected that she will use her multicultural background and youthful “dynamism” to bring diverse parties together.
“I grew up in France with the chance of coming from elsewhere, like millions of French people,” Azoulay said at her investiture. “France and Morocco, Europe and Africa, North and South. Morocco has this special asset in today’s world – an asset that is enshrined in its most important text, its constitutional text – to be based on multiple roots. The preamble of its Constitution clearly affirms the attachment to Berber, Jewish, Arab-Muslim, Andalusian and African civilisations.”
According to Azoulay, the world needs to act with unity and to follow concerted multilateral strategies in light of pressing problems.
“The period in which we’re living faces numerous global challenges which are not those of 1945 [when UNESCO was founded]: massive degradation of the environment, obscurantism, terrorism, questions about the contribution of science, deliberate attacks on cultural diversity, the oppression of women, massive displacements of populations,” she said.
“Our inability to prevent these tragedies can be explained by a common blindness: the lack of knowledge, the denial of universal values, and the absence of a global and humanist response,” she added.
UNESCO also has to develop more effective means to address its in-house problems, the agency’s new head said – issues that include low funding and transparency, along with the internal divisions.
The organisation has been weakened financially since 2011 when the United States and Israel began withholding dues following the election of Palestine as a member state.
Azoulay’s predecessor, out-going Director-General Irina Bokova, saw her second term marred by the financial crisis, and some within UNESCO blamed her for bad management while others have said history will eventually prove her right.
At the 2011 accession of Palestine, Bokova said then that the new membership “must be a chance for all to join together around shared values and renewed ambitions for peace.”
She declared that UNESCO was working on the frontlines … to build a more peaceful, more democratic and more just world”. The words were in line with her stated determination, from her election in 2009 as the organisation’s first woman director-general, to build a “new humanism” globally.
Bokova’s stance did not prevent the tense relations that followed, however; and just as her term drew to an end, the United States announced, on October 12, that it would withdraw from UNESCO by December 31.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” the U.S. State Department said.
During the General Conference – which brought together government ministers and delegates of member states – the United States expanded on its reasons for withdrawing.
“Our decision was based on both practical and policy grounds,” said Chris Hegadorn, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires at UNESCO. “One key factor stems directly from this body’s decision to admit the Palestinians with Member State status in this organisation. This act was premature, politicised, and distracted from efforts to promote Middle East peace by seeking to prejudge issues that should be decided through negotiations between the parties.
“This action also resulted in our inability to continue making contributions to UNESCO under provisions of U.S. domestic law,” he added, “As a result, the United States has accumulated arrears at UNESCO totalling more than 550 million dollars.”
Hegadorn said the decision to withdraw was also influenced by “persistent politicisation and anti-Israel bias at UNESCO”. He said that a “parade of Member-State decisions” had walked UNESCO “further down an untenable political path”.
For his part, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO expressed thanks to “U.S. President [Donald] Trump and our American allies for their courageous and just decision to leave UNESCO and for their continuous support of Israel.”
He continued with an unsparing critique of the organisation during his address at the General Conference, a speech that had to be interrupted because of its length. “UNESCO seems to be focused on two main goals: One – giving a bad reputation to international organisations – and two – wasting a lot of money and precious time,” he said.
According to the ambassador, “UNESCO is the Titanic of international organisations, which was hijacked and led by the Arab Group into crashing the iceberg of politicisation, and which has been sinking ever since.”
After Azoulay’s nomination, when journalists asked her at a press briefing what she would do to keep the United States and Israel in the organisation, she replied that UNESCO would focus on its mandate.
“It’s very important that UNESCO keeps its doors open,” she said. “One cannot ask UNESCO to resolve all problems. One can ask states to act with responsibility and to ask UNESCO to act within its mandate.”
Education for all, gender equality, accountability and the bridging of communities are all expected to be invoked throughout Azoulay’s term, with additional focus on curbing extremism.
The day of her investiture was the second anniversary of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured more than 400. As she was being sworn in at UNESCO headquarters, she and others across the city paid tribute to the victims.
If, under her leadership, UNESCO can work to reduce extremism and create greater international dialogue, that will be Azoulay’s major force, said an African minister, who expressed optimism about the organisation’s future.