Controversy Surrounds Frontrunner in Race to Head Major U.N. Agency

By Patrick Goodenough | September 8, 2009 | 5:21 AM EDT

Egyptian Culture Minister and UNESCO director-general aspirant Farouk Hosni. (Photo: Farouk Hosni’s Web site)

( – A major United Nations agency will choose a new director-general in the coming days, and although promoting freedom of expression is among its key functions, the leading candidate is backed by some of the world’s most repressive governments.
The new head of the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an agency that gets 22 percent of its regular $600 million-plus annual budget from U.S. taxpayers, will be selected in a process that involves behind-closed-doors interviewing and a secret ballot vote.
Farouk Hosni, who has been Egypt’s culture minister for more than two decades, leads a nine-strong field of hopefuls. He leads largely because he has the backing of the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the African Union, and because Arab governments say it is the Arab world’s turn.
(Former UNESCO directors-general have come from Britain, Mexico, the U.S., Italy, France, Senegal, Spain and Japan, whose Koichiro Matsuura’s second four-year term ends in November.)
Hosni’s candidacy has been controversial, with European Jewish figures leading calls to oppose it, based on provocative comments the Egyptian made last year.
Asked by Egyptian lawmakers in May 2008 about the existence of Israeli books in a library in Alexandria, the culture minister answered, “Let’s burn these books. If there are any, I will burn them myself before you.”
Hosni has admitted the remarks, but sought to justify them by invoking “the sufferings and injustice done to the Palestinian people.”
“I was expressing angry feelings at what is happening to an entire people deprived of its land and rights,” he said in a recent statement aimed at quelling the controversy. “What human conscience can be indifferent to such a tragedy?”

Candidate for the post of UNESCO director-general, Farouk Hosni (right) with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Egyptian writer Saad El-Din Wahba in Cairo. (Photo: Farouk Hosni’s Web site)

Hosni called for support for his candidacy based not on “one sentence” but on “twenty-seven years spent in the service of culture.”
Critics, however, have argued that the Egyptian government which Hosni represents has a poor record when it comes to freedom of expression. Media watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) includes Egypt on its current “Internet Enemies” list – the 12 governments it accuses of egregious online censorship – describing Egyptian bloggers as “among the most hounded in the world.”
Other non-governmental groups have similar criticism about other forms of censorship in Egypt, where journalists continue to be jailed for offenses like publishing material “likely to disturb public order,” “spread horror among the people,” or “undermine the dignity of the country.”
One of UNESCO’s main objectives is “empowering people through the free flow of ideas by word and image, and by access to information and knowledge.”
The 58 UNESCO member countries making up its executive board on Monday began a session that will include selecting a new head. Apart from Hosni, those in the race include three from Europe, three from Africa, and one each from Russia and Latin America.
The board will interview the candidates and discuss their candidacies in private before taking a vote.
In line with common U.N. practice, the executive board is divided into regional groups – nine from the West, seven from Eastern Europe, 10 from Latin America, 12 from Asia, 13 from Africa and seven from North Africa and Middle East.
With Hosni having been endorsed by the Arab, Islamic and African blocs, he can expect at least the 20 votes from Africa and the Middle East and another three from Islamic states in the Asian and Eastern European groups as well as from countries like Cuba, China and Russia. (Of the 12 countries on the RSF’s “Internet Enemies” list, five are UNESCO board members – China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.)
Once the voting is complete, the board will present the winner to UNESCO’s full 193-member general conference, which meets next month.
Mismanagement and a radical agenda
The U.S. was one of the founding members of UNESCO, but the Reagan administration withdrew in 1984, protesting mismanagement and promotion of a radical agenda.
Critics called it a mouthpiece for pro-Soviet sentiment and like other U.N. agencies, it also took an anti-Israel stance at times.
Shortly before the U.S. pulled out, the organization planned to set up a “new world information order” to counteract what it said was a Western-dominated flow of information. It proposed that journalists be licensed and an international code of press ethics be established.
Pro-lifers also criticized UNESCO over the years, accusing it of promoting abortion.
After the U.S. withdrew, Britain and Singapore also pulled out.
In September 2002, during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush announced the U.S. would rejoin the agency to participate in “its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”
The U.S. argued that Matsuura had ushered in important reforms since taking the top post in 1999, including cutting back on staff numbers. Louise Oliver duly became the U.S. envoy to UNESCO in 2004.
The agency’s agenda has continued to be controversial at times.
In 2006, the executive board approved a measure, introduced by the OIC, entitled “respect for freedom of expression, sacred beliefs, values and religious and cultural symbols.”
The motion did not refer directly to the furor at the time over the publication of cartoons satirizing Mohammed, but an “explanatory note” offered by the OIC members did, saying the publication “has caused deep and widespread offense and indignation.”
The OIC said the push at UNESCO was part of its “strategy to take initiatives at various international organs to contribute to the formation of an international legal framework” against what the organization calls religious “defamation.”
Last year, UNESCO withdrew its patronage of an event called Online Free Expression Day, after RSF, which organized the program, published material including an updated “Internet Enemies” list.
UNESCO complained that RSF had placed the UNESCO logo on its material “in such a way as to indicate the organization’s support of the information presented.”
RSF responded to the move by saying UNESCO had evidently “caved in” after coming under pressure from some of the governments on its “Internet Enemies” list.
“Unfortunately, it seems we have gone back 20 years, to the time when authoritarian regimes called the shots at UNESCO headquarters in Paris,” it said in a statement. “UNESCO’s groveling shows the importance of Online Free Expression Day and the need to protest against governments that censor.”
Last month President Obama’s nominee, David Killion, was sworn in as permanent representative to UNESCO.
The candidates for the UNESCO’s top post are Hosni, Ina Marciulionyte, a Lithuanian diplomat; Mohammed Badjaoui, an Algerian ambassador; Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat; Sospeter Muhongo, a Tanzanian scientist; Alexander Yakovenko, a Russian deputy foreign minister; Ivonne de A. Baki, an Ecuadorian lawmaker; Noureini Tidjani-Serpos, a diplomat from Benin; and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, an Austrian who is the outgoing E.U. commissioner for external relations.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow