Unesco picks new leader, day after US withdrawal

Ms Audrey Azoulay says she will strive to "restore" Unesco's credibility and efficiency by focusing on its core missions.
Ms Audrey Azoulay says she will strive to "restore" Unesco's credibility and efficiency by focusing on its core missions.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS • A former culture minister from France has been elected to lead Unesco, the United Nations educational and cultural agency, a decision that was overshadowed by the Trump administration's move to withdraw the United States from the organisation.

The change of leadership comes at a tumultuous time for Unesco, whose goals of promoting education and defending human rights have been hampered in recent years by a lack of funding and disputes between member states.

Ms Audrey Azoulay was elected on Friday to a four-year term by Unesco's executive board at the organisation's Paris headquarters.

She defeated Qatari diplomat Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari.

"It's an institution that for a while now has lost the thread of its initial mission," said Mr Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris.

The former French diplomat who has worked on UN affairs said Unesco was started to foster cultural and educational exchange as a way of contributing to world peace. Instead, he said, it has often been used as a platform for member states to take largely symbolic jabs at other member states.

Ms Azoulay argued before the vote that she would strive to "restore" Unesco's credibility and efficiency by focusing on its core missions. In the wake of the US withdrawal, she said, France had decided "not to leave it, but to get even more involved".

Unesco is best known for designating World Heritage sites, more than 1,000 of them since 1972, including the Yosemite National Park in California and the Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan.

It is also known for its educational programmes, and works extensively on the promotion of sex education, literacy, clean water and equality for women.

The US and Israel last Thursday announced they were quitting the agency after Washington accused it of anti-Israeli bias.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month told the UN General Assembly that Unesco was promoting "fake history" after it designated the city of Hebron in the West Bank and the two adjoining shrines at its heart - the Jewish Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Muslim Ibrahimi Mosque - as a "Palestinian World Heritage Site in danger".

The US had already cut off all contributions to Unesco's budget in 2011, after Palestine was voted a full member, depriving the agency of nearly a fifth of its budget.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Unesco picks new leader, day after US withdrawal'. Print Edition | Subscribe