Discussion with Irina Bokova, the former UNESCO’s Executive Director (2009-2017)

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As promoter of cultural diversity, the representative of CD4Peace attended on the 27th of November 2018, the event organized by Art Law Center (Prof. Marc-André Renold) at the University of Geneva. It was a good opportunity to exchange the ideas about cultural diversity issues and the future projects of CD4Peace with a leading personality in the field of culture, the former UNESCO’s Executive Director (2009-2017) Madam Irina Bokova. This conference allowed us to have an internal point of view on the UNESCO’s work, but also to have an insight to the various issues and critiques that the organization is facing, and the various debates that take place within it.

The main points in Madam Bokova speech were as below:

  • Firstly, during her displacements as Executive Director, she often heard some criticism regarding the issue of protection of cultural heritage during conflicts and about what UNESCO could really do. She argued that UNESCO, despite the fact that it doesn’t have an army or any security instrument, has expanded its intervention area by succeeding, for the first time, in including the responsibility for heritage protection within the Security Council’s resolution relating to peacekeeping forces’ mandate. Moreover, UNESCO contributed in implementing military training in order to sensitize soldiers to this important aspect of peace and security. She gave us an example from Timbuktu, in Mali: small passports were given to each soldier explaining why cultural heritage is important and where were the different heritage monuments located.

 

  • Secondly, regarding the multiplication of legal instruments protecting cultural property in many countries, she emphasized the role played by UNESCO in the UN Security Council’s recognition of the importance of protection of cultural goods against illicit trafficking, especially when they serve to finance terrorism. Thanks to a resolution brought by Russia, UNESCO was able to create a platform in order exchange data and encourage countries to take actions either to adopt new laws, or to harmonize the legislation, create new institutions.

 

She also identified some challenges:

  • She explained that one of the main issues for UNESCO’s work is that, often, local populations are not aware of their heritage’s value. To combat this issue, the main tool is education. Education can help local populations to assess and understand the importance of cultural diversity, to respect and protect it. For instance, education played a central role in Iraq, because people, especially the youth, had forgotten that the country has always been endowed of a great diversity that deserved protection. Especially regarding the challenge to protect a local heritage that does not belong to the dominant culture, there is a necessity to raise awareness of the need to protect every culture even when it is not theirs, because a homogeneity does not exist when it comes to cultures.

 

  • Moreover, regarding the process of integrating a heritage monument to the list of the UNESCO’s World Heritage, she explained that there is a big debate about the eligibility criteria. Indeed, today a lot of political considerations are at stake in this process. Therefore, the questions of integrity and of the Convention’s future are arising more and more. She witnessed this shift within the Committee, because now experts are increasingly erased by ambassadors and politicians.

 

  • To finish, regarding the recent decision of the French President Emmanuel Macron to return 26 works of art to Benin, an act of recognition of the dark days of French colonialism in Africa, she highlighted the blurriness of the limits of the restitution process. Indeed, even if we need to speak more about the unethicality of stealing and keeping artistic goods illegally appropriated and even if she thinks that the process of restitution is heading toward the right direction, we need to think about the limits of this process. For instance, thanks to the news technologies, new areas, such as sub-aquatic items become now accessible, but this raises new debates and new challenges.