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UNESCO can make the world a better place, says director-general

Istanbul - Hurriyet Daily News | 6/25/2010 12:00:00 AM | ERİSA DAUTAJ ŞENERDEM

UNESCO can play a leading role in the field of education by implementing and strongly pushing a positive agenda within a holistic approach, according to Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO. She says reducing rates of illiteracy throughout the globe is an emergent issue, adding that the 760 million illiterate people around the world is an intolerably high amount

People’s lives can change through UNESCO, according to Irina Bokova, the general-director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

“I believe in UNESCO,” Bokova said, adding that in covering important fields such as education, science, communications and culture, UNESCO could substantially change people’s lives, should it set and implement the right policies.

Bokova, speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview at Çırağan Palace in Istanbul on Wednesday, said she came to Istanbul to participate and deliver the key speech at the Southeastern European Cultural Corridors Summit, where leaders of 12 southeastern European countries, including Turkey, were present.

“UNESCO in the globalized world: New Humanism for the 21st century,” is Bokova’s vision for the future of the organization as she believes that leading the world into a new era of peace and humanism, for more inclusive, just and equitable societies throughout the globe, is the biggest challenge facing the world today.

UNESCO can play a leading role in the field of education, by implementing and strongly pushing a positive agenda within a holistic approach, according to Bokova. She said reducing the rates of illiterate people throughout the globe was an emergent issue, and that there were 760 million of illiterate people throughout the globe could not be tolerated.

“We talk about new technologies and that we are constantly online, but mothers throughout the globe cannot read the prescription of drugs they give to their children, families cannot have a healthy environment because they do not know how to look after it,” Bokova said, referring to the alarming and unacceptable tableau of illiteracy in the world.

Bokova also said she was committed to put a new emphasis on quality education, especially for females and girls, fifty percent of whom leave school after primary education for reasons varying between poverty, early marriage and reasons pertaining to marginalized communities and lack of infrastructure. “We have to have a new look at the Millennium Development Goals [MDG] especially education, where I think UNESCO has an enormous responsibility,” she said.

Bokova hopes culture will also be included in the next MDG debate. “Culture generates income and promotes economic growth,” she said, adding that it also makes societies more inclusive and is a factor of political stability in many conflict and post-conflict countries. She also thinks it can be a tool of combating violence in certain societies as well.

“Culture gives a lot more confidence to people and communities in this global village that is the world today,” Bokova said.

Bokova also said she has established a High Panel on Peace and Dialogue Among Cultures, in the framework of 2010 as the International Year for the Raprochemet of Cultures. She said it was an open forum, rather than a closed committee, open to all intellectuals, artists, and personalities at all levels to debate on how to promote peace through cultural dialogue.

“The ethnic tensions are growing nowadays,” she said, adding that UNESCO had a role to play here, through its huge network of intellectuals and academics who can help promote cultural dialogue. “We do not know all the answers, but it is important that we debate and take action to start moving,” Bokova said.

She believes that the Southeastern European Cultural Corridors Summit, which was first launched with UNESCO’s initiative in 2002, is an important political initiative. She said UNESCO was committed to further develop this initiative that had “given good fruits,” and that it could be a good model for other regions, such as the Caucasus region, which could be included in the initiative as well.

Regarding democratic values and fundamental rights of citizens such as the freedoms of expression and opinion, Bokova said that what was important was not only to declare such values, but also to make efforts toward their implementation. “We celebrate the International Day of Freedom of Expression every May 3,” she said, by also mentioning other UNESCO activities in this area, such as assistance to governments to put in place legislation for the protection of freedom of expression and of the media, as well as the organization of conferences and training for journalists. She said last year some 20 countries, especially those in post-conflict African regions, were in promoting freedoms of expression and the media.

Bokova also explained that UNESCO had strong cooperation with faculties of journalism in universities throughout the globe, and that some 60 projects for training journalists were implemented annually. “We have established standards of excellence for journalists, and appointed chairs in many universities to promote such values,” she said.

UNESCO is also active in protecting the security of journalists and it has issued a report on this matter at the beginning of this year, said Bokova, according to whom many journalists give their lives not because of conflict situations, but rather because they tell the truth, by reporting corruption or some other cases. “We are engaged in asking for punity for such actions,” she said, by adding that UNESCO was very much in advocacy of the security of journalists in different countries.

Climate change is another field of interest in which Bokova believes UNESCO can make a change. “It is a huge area of cavity,” she said. The organization has started a pilot project on education for climate change, and Bokova said she strongly believed that unless people are educated to change their daily lives, whatever decisions taken on missions and financing for preventing climate change will not be sustainable.

“Alliance of Civilizations and UNESCO have a common agenda, to promote peace and tolerance and better understanding among different cultures,” Bokova said, referring to the Memorandum of Understanding that she signed with Jorge Sampaio, the High-Representative of the Secretary General for the Alliance of Civilizations, during the Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations, held on May 28 and 29 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Bokova said she was very happy having refreshed the memorandum, first signed in 2008, by adding that it would shed more light on their cooperation. “I do believe that this synergy between this political initiative, the Alliance of Civilizations, and UNESCO will promote tolerance and peace throughout the globe,” she said.

[HH] Haiti, a test for UNESCO

“When this tragedy happened I thought that it was our moral responsibility from the very first day to be there,” Bokova said, referring to the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12 in Haiti. She said she could see all the devastation and personal tragedies of thousands of people in Haiti when she visited the country in March.

Bokova said Haiti was a test for the U.N. and all the international community can really mobilize themselves to intervene in such a huge human disaster. “Haiti does not represent a geo-political interest, there is no oil or diamonds there,” she said. “Thus, it is test where we can still be human and help other people get out of this tragedy.” She also stressed the fact that Haiti should not return to the previous status quo, but really move forward with something else.

“I am very glad that we are accompanied by both the Haitian ministry of education and that of culture, to re-establish the education system, help with technical and vocational training, and organize projects in training the media in such a post disaster region,” said Bokova, adding that two important conferences were held in Paris, aiming to help the Haitian society and culture, and to establish an international committee for the protection of cultural objects in the country.

“Haiti has an extremely rich culture rooted in African traditions,” she said, by explaining that this was why one of UNESCO’s first concerns after the tragedy was about preserving Haitian cultural heritage, in cooperation with the Haitian Ministry of Culture.

Michaelle Jean, Canada’s former governor-general was appointed UNESCO Special Enovy for Haiti on June 22, and Bokova said she was looking forward to working closely with her to help Haiti.

Haiti occupies a very particular place for UNESCO, according to Bokova, with all its history as the first black independent country in the beginning of the 19th century, and that the organization has been involved with the country for a long time, especially helping with improving the education system and preserving Haitian culture.

[HH] Reform in UN must continue

According to Bokova, the world is becoming not only multi-polar but also more democratic, which makes the role of the United Nations even more important in this era of globalization and multi-lateralism. Regarding the reform in the U.N., she said that it had to go on, and that the way decisions were taken in the Security Council and other U.N. bodies had to be restructured and modernized. “Gender equality should be taken up with all the seriousness as the U.N. is reformed,” Bokova said.

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