‘UNESCO and Turkey in solid dialogue over Istanbul’s historic areas’

‘UNESCO and Turkey in solid dialogue over Istanbul’s historic areas’

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
‘UNESCO and Turkey in solid dialogue over Istanbul’s historic areas’

Following talks in Ankara on her first official visit to Turkey, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova came to Istanbul on the same day as the deadly attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. During the interview, which took place just as the news of the attack was hitting the wires, Bokova said UNESCO will try to strengthen the 'Alliance of Civilizations' - a Turkish-Spanish initiative to increase cultural understanding.

The Turkish government’s infrastructure and restoration projects are worrying civil society representatives in the country, concerned that Istanbul’s historic sites could be removed from UNESCO’s world heritage list.

Touching on these concerns, UNESCO Director General İrina Bokova has told the Hürriyet Daily News that her organization is “watching very closely what is happening.”

“The world heritage committee is watching very closely what is happening. Solid dialogue has been established by the expert community that is helping UNESCO and the local authorities,” Bokova said.

What is the current state of affairs in relations between Turkey and UNESCO?

We have a long relations Turkey; it is a founding member. We have relations in practically all areas; for instance, with universities I just launched a chair in Turkey. The country has 13 sites on the world heritage list, and it has 12 elements on the intangible heritage list. Turkey has hosted many of our meetings, and we work with the “Alliance of Civilizations” - a joint Turkish Spanish initiative. I want to strengthen all this.

But I still think we can do more, especially at a time when the world is in turmoil. This was the message for my first official visit to Turkey: A renewed partnership. I don’t talk of cooperation only as a bilateral thing; it is partnership for the benefit of others too.

A significant portion of Turkish society is critical of the government’s projects conducted at the expense of cultural heritage. What does UNESCO think about how Turkey handles the balance between modernization and the need to protect historical sites?

I think this is an ongoing debate among UNESCO member states, the expert community, and wider civil society. I’m not surprised that UNESCO is associated with the debate about modernity and the protection of heritage. This dichotomy is probably becoming increasingly acute and important nowadays because of the increasing urbanization in the world.

Today, 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. Amid this pressure of urbanization, people want to have community services, better transportation links, sewage systems, and other services. However, we always say that this should not come at the expense of the destruction of heritage. There should always be this consideration. Ascribing heritage to an old building, a temple, or a traditional area brings only value to communities; heritage is about identities, it is not just about buildings.

Do you think this message is well-received and implemented in Turkey?

It is an ongoing effort. I don’t believe there is any place in the world where you can say it is solved once and for all. There should be constant vigilance and a constant process of finding the right balance; a constant process of protecting and taking conservation measures; because having the right management plans and knowing how to protect these particular sites is especially difficult when people live there. This is why the world heritage committee is periodically reviewing the state of conservation of 107 sites already on the list.

My understanding is that Istanbul’s historic areas are at risk of being removed from the list.

I would not say removed from the list. In order to be removed from the list many other things should also happen. I’d only say that the world heritage committee is reviewing periodically, and watching very closely, what is happening. I think there is a solid dialogue that has been established by the expert community that is helping UNESCO and the local authorities.

Here I would say that civil society groups also play an important role. I know it is not easy to always find the right answers, but it is important to have vibrant dialogue within the same environment and also with UNESCO, and to try to follow the very solid advice of independent experts. UNESCO is a very neutral stakeholder; our supreme interest is to protect and preserve heritage and at the same time not to harm the people who live in these areas.

Civil society representatives are extremely worried about the restoration works undertaken by the government. NGOs may think UNESCO is not raising its voice to ring the alarm bells. Some wish for UNESCO to take a tougher stance, to use its punishing leverage on the Turkish government.

We receive a lot of letters and we interact with many NGOS and expert communities around the world. Let me say something very clearly: UNESCO is not an entity that stands outside, either outside Turkey or outside governments.

UNESCO is a platform for international cooperation, for a place where governments come together and agree around common policies, so that they follow policies and principles. We are not the police, not a punishment squad. I don’t think we should punish a government, a society, a group, or a mayor. We are raising awareness and we are encouraging. We are working with governments and expert communities, civil society groups. We are not there to punish but we do raise the alarm and we have raised alarm bells.

Did you raise the alarm bell as far as Turkey is concerned?

Yes, and not just Turkey. Any country in the world where we see a heritage in danger, regardless of whether it is a developed or developing country.

One of the issues on your agenda is the illicit trafficking of artefacts from Syria. Do you have specific expectations from Turkey?

Yes, definitely. I discussed this issue with the Foreign and Culture Ministries, as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I know that Turkey is taking a lot of measures, and the culture minister informed me that it is taking serious measures to recapture some of the objects that are being smuggled and sold.

We have decided that we will work more closely together. We have been engaged in joint efforts not just to raise awareness but also to build capacity.

Turkey is concerned about Islamophobia. I’m sure this issue was also on the agenda of the talks.

We are deeply concerned with rising racist prejudices, including Islamophobia and intolerance. We are seeing attacks on mosques, on synagogues. Anti-Semitism is also on the rise. We have discussed this issue with Mr. Erdoğan.

We have a very vibrant, solid discussion within UNESCO on what we should do. We must do much more about the hatred, the lack of acceptance of the other. The notion of tolerance must change. Yesterday, tolerance meant that you are different but you must stay apart from me. Today, we have to talk about living together.

Radical Islamists are targeting girls’ education. Is this issue on your agenda with Turkey?

Of course it is on our agenda and we have discussed the issue with Turkish officials. We have established here a Center for Gender Studies, with Koç University. One of our biggest education programs is in Afghanistan. Last year I visited one girls’ school, to give very strong support for girls’ education. We are working within the U.N. system in a very committed manner.

Do you believe that Turkey is doing enough as a secular Muslim country to promote these messages?

Turkey has a very strong message in its education system. Turkey has achieved 100 percent literacy and it is also very gender equal in education. I think we can work with Turkey. It is part of my appeal for a partnership between UNESCO and Turkey to work in other countries to promote the same values.

Is UNESCO still committed to the Turkish–Spanish initiative of the “Alliance of Civilizations”? It seems the initiative is no longer on the agenda.

We are committed to the notion of the importance of intercultural dialogue for better understanding. UNESCO is in its 70th year working on that matter. Showing the heritage of different countries and different religions to the world is about cultural literacy. This is about respect, about understanding each other’s history and culture. Heritage is a cultural dialogue per se. The “Alliance of Civilizations” is very high-level political initiative, UNESCO is a partner of it and we are committed to work for achieving the same goals.

Who is Irina Bokova ?


Born on 1952 in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Irina Bokova has been the Director-General of UNESCO since Nov. 15, 2009, and was reelected for a second term in 2013. She is the first woman to lead the Organization.

Having graduated from Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Bokova has also studied at the University of Maryland (Washington) and the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University), joining the United Nations Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria in 1977.

As a member of the Bulgarian Parliament (1990-1991 and 2001-2005), she participated in the drafting of Bulgaria’s new Constitution, which contributed significantly to the country’s accession to the European Union.

Bokova has been the Bulgarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Coordinator of Bulgaria-EU relations, and the Bulgarian Ambassador to France, Monaco and UNESCO.