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New UNESCO chief vows to restore 'unity' to troubled agency

ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP | Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay gestures as she speaks at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on November 10, 2017.

UNESCO's new leader, France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay, says her top priority will be to “rebuild unity” at the UN cultural agency, which has been riven by dissension and under fire for dragging its feet on much-needed reforms.


"To rebuild unity, we must promote UNESCO's assets and its know-how, as well as that of its members," Azoulay told AFP in an interview.

The Paris-based cultural, scientific and educational organisation "must show, through its actions, that UNESCO is addressing the challenges of globalisation today", said the 45-year-old, whose nomination was confirmed on Friday.

She said she would seek to "reduce a certain amount of tension" but conceded that difficulties would "always exist".

"History has taught us that to leave this kind of organisation ... can only lead to catastrophe" - UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay

US, Israeli departures

The vote that saw Azoulay succeed outgoing UNESCO chief Irina Bokova was somewhat overshadowed by Washington's announcement that it planned to withdraw from the body after years of strained relations over decisions seen as critical of Israel.

>> Read more: Hollande's protégé Azoulay wins UNESCO's top job

In 2011, former US president Barack Obama suspended funding for UNESCO – about 22 percent of its annual budget – in response to its decision to admit the state of Palestine as a full member.

In the years since, UNESCO has been the scene of several flare-ups over Arab-sponsored resolutions critical of Israel. In July, it declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered UNESCO World Heritage site, infuriating Israel while delighting Palestinians.

The decision by Obama's successor Donald Trump in October to withdraw from the body – alongside Israel – will take effect at the end of 2018, when Washington will establish an "observer mission" to replace its UNESCO representation.

"But UNESCO must keep the door open and continue to work with American civil society," said Azoulay, who was culture minister under Socialist president François Hollande for a little over a year until he left office in May.

Azoulay acknowledged that the sprawling 72-year-old agency is "sometimes paralysed or taken hostage by disputes that it cannot resolve".

"We must nip divisive issues in the bud, find joint solutions" and avoid issues that UNESCO cannot resolve – "which is not its function, by the way", Azoulay added.

To some extent, the UNESCO chief’s powers are limited. She doesn't have the power to overrule its resolutions, which are voted on by UNESCO's executive board and its General Conference. The director-general heads the secretariat, a separate organ.

But there are still significant decisions that Azoulay will be able to make, says François Chaubet, a professor of modern history at Paris Nanterre University. “An example of what she could do to bring the US back in is to focus on programmes where there is more consensus – like the restoration and protection of heritage sites, where a lot of work could be done if you consider the damage that has occurred in the Middle East in the past 15 years or so,” Chaubet told FRANCE 24.

>> In pictures: heritage sites wrecked by war in Syria

Adapting priorities

Azoulay said UNESCO's budget integrates both dues and voluntary contributions and remains "realistic".

"As for the current budget, we must determine the most crucial areas for action by UNESCO, where it is the only one acting, and adapt our priorities to our means."

The agency might also be able to “get support from other networks, other partnerships", she said.

Asked about UNESCO's image as a second-tier UN agency that is mainly concerned with developing its prestigious World Heritage list, Azoulay said that this view was "very French".

"When you go to South Korea, Japan or sub-Saharan Africa, they talk to you mainly about education when it comes to UNESCO."

Azoulay added: "Education is the main challenge of our century; it is fundamental. UNESCO may have a lower profile than other agencies because it doesn't build schools, but it is the world reference on the substance and content of education," she said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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