Software for peace

Software for peace

The revolutions in the Middle East have reminded everyone of the power of aspirations for human rights and dignity. Only a few years ago, it was not uncommon to hear prominent analysts declare “authoritarian capitalism” as the zeitgeist of our times. Democracy, the argument went, was under pressure from all sides in many countries, while authoritarian rulers had never seemed more firmly in place. Certainly, very few expected democratic change to occur in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring has taken the world by surprise. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, we have seen the courage of men and women rising up in the face of daunting opposition and the potential of societies for renewal despite heavy pressures. As time passes since early 2011, we are increasingly aware also of the obstacles to be overcome for positive change to take deep root.

UNESCO’s role lies here. The organization is primarily known for its pioneering work to safeguard world heritage sites across the globe and for its global leadership to promote “Education for All” by 2015. UNESCO’s role in supporting societies undergoing profound transformation is less well-known. It should be, because peace-building from this wide angle is written in the DNA of the organization.

Lasting peace in the 21st century cannot rely solely on intergovernmental agreements. It must be embedded in a vision of sustainable development that promotes the inherent dignity of every member of society and that allows every woman and man to develop to their full capacity. These are the focus of UNESCO’s work.

The organization does not keep the peace – it lays foundations to make it last.

Five strategic objectives have guided UNESCO’s action throughout the Arab Spring. Our first goal is to improve the quality of education. In a word, the region needs an education overhaul. Linked to this, our second objective is to support the development of relevant skills and economic opportunities – especially for young people, whose frustration has fuelled so much movement for change. Third, it is vital to support peaceful social transformation by bolstering the emergence of democratic societies. Civil society should be strengthened, including youth and women’s organizations, as the foundation for human rights, tolerance and the rule of law. 

Supporting freedom of expression and press freedom is a fourth strategic objective. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya face the challenge of building professional and independent media environments that enable freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity of the media. Our fifth objective is to protect the region’s unique cultural heritage from pillaging and damage. Egypt hosts seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, while Tunisia contains eight and Libya holds five. Cultural heritage is a source of strength and cohesion for societies facing turbulent times.

In practice, this strategy has taken different shapes to reflect different situations and needs across the region. UNESCO actions have combined immediate measures to address emergencies along with engagement for the longer term. UNESCO acted immediately to protect the cultural heritage of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from the risks associated with political instability. 

UNESCO is the United Nations agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression. On this basis, the organization had forceful public positions during 2011, calling on relevant authorities to protect the safety of journalists and condemning the clampdown on freedom of expression, including on the internet. UNESCO also acted quickly to bolster education in each of these countries. At the regional level, UNESCO is leading a new initiative called the Literacy Enhancement Arab Program, designed to increase the quality of literacy programs and to improve coordination among partners. UNESCO has pushed hard to place education at the heart of international peace-building efforts. 

The transformations underway in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are precarious. Every situation is different, and we know there may be as many steps sideways as they are forwards. In these transformation processes, democratic institutions and elections are vital, but they are not enough.

To work, transformation requires vibrant and healthy societies and informed citizens, able to exercise their rights and freedoms. These are foundations for the long term. UNESCO has acted in these areas during the Arab Spring, guided by a vision of peace and sustainable development based on human rights and dignity. 

Irina Bokova is the director-general of UNESCO. This is an abbreviated version of this article, which was originally published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Winter 2012 issue (Vol. 10, No. 4). To read it in full, please visit