Meeting Irina Bokova: An Interview
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BCD’s “Visionaries” column presents conversations with people who have the ability to see a future that is different and better than our current reality. Most visionaries could also be considered heroes–their vision of what could be often means grappling with complex dynamics and facing resistance from others. That fact of life was being played out on the world stage when BCD interviewed UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. Our conversation took place as the U.S. announced plans to withdraw from the organization, and as Ms. Bokova concluded two terms as its head after serving from 2009 – 2017.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the U.N. based in Paris; its purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedom proclaimed in the United Nations Charter.
Irina was first elected to head UNESCO in 2009 and was re-elected for a second term in 2013. She is the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the organization. As Director-General of UNESCO, Irina has been actively engaged in international efforts to advance quality education for all, gender equality, the protection of the world’s cultural heritage as both a humanitarian imperative and security issue, to strengthen the foundations for lasting peace. She actively promotes culture as a driver for development, along with science diplomacy and cooperation, as this Irina Bokova interview will show.
Irina is from Sofia, Bulgaria and graduated from Moscow State Institute of International Relations. She was a Fellow at the University of Maryland (Washington) and followed an executive program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She began her career at the United Nations Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria. Appointed in charge of political and legal affairs at the Permanent Mission of Bulgaria to the United Nations in New York, she was a member of the Bulgarian Delegation to the UN World Conferences on Women in Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing. She was elected twice as Member of Parliament and she served as the Government’s first Secretary of European integration.
Irina was Minister for Foreign Affairs ad interim, as well as Ambassador of Bulgaria to France, Monaco and UNESCO and Personal Representative of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.
During an epoch of unprecedented global divisiveness, Irina has spearheaded global awareness campaigns to counter youth radicalization and prevent violent extremism, hate speech, and discrimination, starting with action through education. Let her give you a behind-the-scenes look at how cultural heritage is being used as a “soft but smart power” to combat intolerance and promote cultural pluralism and peace.
Protecting Cultural Heritage Through Unesco
Meg: In March, you addressed the United Nations Security Council about Resolution 2347, the first ever-resolution adopted by the Council to focus exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage and its necessity for peace and security. This briefing marked the first time a Director General of UNESCO had been invited to serve in this capacity. Can you speak about the significance of being invited to present at this briefing, and what it said about UNESCO’s role in world affairs?
Irina: I’m really happy that you pose this question because I do believe that the adoption of Resolution 2347 was a historic event. A historic event not just for UNESCO, which has been very much into the forefront of fighting extremism in terms of the destruction of heritage, something that we have seen much of in recent years with the advent of Daesh, of some other extremist groups in Africa, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I think that we have a new reading nowadays of why heritage and culture matter. It is not just by chance that extremists target our common heritage, because they know that when they attack heritage, they attack the soul of the people, the identity of the people. We were shocked when the Bamiyan Buddha monumental statues were destroyed by the Taliban at the beginning of the 2000s. We all thought that it was just an outrageous aberration that would never happen again. I think this is the mark of our time, that we saw a deliberate destruction, we hear of deliberate trafficking, we see attempts to erase our common history because extremists know that it matters.
The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime and tactic of war in the global strategy of cultural cleansing. That is why defending cultural heritage is more than a cultural issue. Rather, it is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending human lives. From Palmyra to the Shrine of Mosul, cultural heritage sites are symbols of unity, bearing witness to the dialogue of cultures that had always existed. Violent extremists know this, and that is why they seek to destroy it. As soon as fighting ceased in Palmyra and Aleppo, UNESCO dispatched emergency teams. In Mali, it mobilized armed forces on the matter. UNESCO is working with the International Criminal Court to end impunity for war crimes against culture.
With Resolution 2347, UNESCO is focused on coordinating international action with INTERPOL, UNODC, customs services, the private sector and museums, and some 50 States that have strengthened their legislation and are sharing data to dismantle trafficking routes. Among the specific initiatives Resolution 2347 calls for are the adoption of preventive measures to protect cultural goods, of particular national importance during armed conflicts; the adoption of measures to prevent and fight the illicit trafficking of exported and imported cultural goods; the creation of digitized and accessible inventories and databases for stolen goods; the establishment of standards for museums and the art market in provenance certifications and due diligence; the sharing of lists of cultural sites under terrorist control; and the providing of assistance to Member States in the field of mine-clearing of sites and cultural objects affected by conflicts.
The Link Between Peace, Security and Protection
I had been trying for a long time to put the dots together between the destruction of heritage, peace security and humanitarian disasters, particularly after the advent of extremists in Mali and then in Syria. It was difficult in the beginning because people tended at that time to see heritage as stones and bricks. I have always said that heritage is not just bricks and stones, but it is a message. It is our history. The link between peace, security and protection of heritage is vital today if we really want to look at the core of present day problems. Weapons are not enough. I deeply believe that we have to have a different approach to peace and security. In my speech at the Security Council I quoted the great German humanist and poet Heinrich Heine who said once, long before the Holocaust, the Second World War and our times today, that when you start burning books, you end burning people. It’s all relevant today.
Meg: In that vein, can you give a concrete example of how culture and transmission of heritage can make a difference in defeating violent extremism?
Irina: Well, I can give Timbuktu as an example as it is so relevant to our discussion today.
Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa, is home of the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas. The city was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a center for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, are exceptional examples of earthen architecture and of traditional maintenance techniques, which continue to the present time.
I have been to Timbuktu twice. The first time I went there with the former French president Francois Hollande. It was just a week after the French troops, with the help of some international support, pushed away al Qaeda-linked extremists from Timbuktu in 2013. I went to the French foreign minister the day after the French intervened and said ‘Mr. Minister, I want to go to Timbuktu, because I know how important it is for the people that UNESCO is there, and I want to see what’s happening with the manuscripts, with the mosques, with the mausoleums.’ And then he told me that the French president planned to go.
It was quite an adventure to go there with the military vehicles and to see the ruins of the mausoleums. But what really impressed me deeply was the reaction of the local people. I can say now that during the occupation by the extremists, we were in regular contact with local families and we helped them move some of the big collections of manuscripts that have been with them for thousand years to outside the zone to a secure place in Bamako.
From a European point of view, the mausoleums are not sophisticated, big structures, but are so deeply entrenched in the identity of the people. So standing there in front of the destroyed mausoleums, I promised we would rebuild. We did that. We did that with the local people. We did that with traditional materials. And two years later, I went to a wonderful event to celebrate the completion of the restoration. I saw people crying when they saw the new mausoleums, they felt once again Timbuktian and part of the long history of their families. I felt such a deep emotion, for the first time in my life I had the feeling that I’m helping these people re-gain their identity.
I can speak about the rebuilding of the bridge in Mostar, which was destroyed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It did not have any strategic importance, it was a pedestrian bridge. The attack meant to show that the two communities could not live together. And UNESCO rebuilt it. We’ve kept it on the World Heritage List and it has a huge symbolic significance, even to this day, because whenever the two communities celebrate national holidays in Mostar, they always get together on this bridge.
Meg: You just mentioned being personally emotionally moved to really feel that something that you were doing was making a genuine difference. I’m just curious, how often are you able to have those moments? It would just seem to me that your role requires really keeping your eye on the prize.
Irina: Whenever I have had any contact and participated in some kind of an exchange of contact with local communities, probably it’s the most rewarding part of my work here, to interact and to speak and to show that we respect their culture and their contribution.
From time to time, I have had the opportunity to present the certificates of the inscription of certain sites onto the World Heritage List. It’s always been a big celebration. I’ve just come from India. I was there last week to give the certificate of the inscription of Ahmedabad. It is, in fact, the first inscription of the whole complex of an old city in India on the World Heritage List. The walled city founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 15th century on the Sabarmati river, presents a rich architectural heritage from the sultanate period. You can’t imagine what enthusiasm there was in the big hall where there were probably more than 3,000 people.
I later visited the island of Kulangsu in China which is also a World Heritage site. It is a beautiful legacy of Europeans who settled there. The Chinese created their own blend of architecture which you cannot find anywhere in the world. There is a mixture of different architectural styles including Traditional Southern Fujian Style, Western Classical Revival Style and Veranda Colonial Style. Whenever I went afterwards, at the airport, in the hotel, people recognized me and thanked me because they think this inscription is the best gift that they have received in so many years.
Protecting “intangible” Cultural Heritage through UNESCO
We at UNESCO also developed the notion of intangible heritage, which is very important. An example is the inscription in Indonesia a couple of years ago of a local dance, Saman, which is part of the cultural heritage of the Gayo people of Aceh province in Sumatra. Boys and young men perform the Saman sitting on their heels or kneeling in tight rows. Each wears a black costume embroidered with colorful Gayo motifs symbolizing nature and noble values. The leader sits in the middle of the row and leads the singing of verses that offer guidance and can be religious, romantic or humorous in tone. Dancers clap their hands, slap their chests, thighs and the ground, click their fingers, and sway and twist their bodies and heads in time with the shifting rhythm. These movements symbolize the daily lives of the Gayo people and their natural environment.
This part of Indonesia was heavily hit by the earthquake and tsunami in 2004 and was devastated by a huge loss of human life. In 2010 or ’11, when we had the Intangible Heritage Committee meeting in Indonesia, we inscribed the dance. I remember people were coming to express thanks in tears and saying this is the best thing somebody could have done for this devastated community.
Meg: Respect is certainly key. Three years ago, you launched Unite4Heritage, a campaign aiming to create a global movement to protect and safeguard heritage in areas where it is threatened by extremists. I found the program interesting in that it relies heavily on social media and seems to be an effort to create more popular mainstream awareness of UNESCO’s efforts in the realm of heritage. What are your goals for this initiative?
Irina: I launched Unite4Heritage in March of 2015 at the University of Baghdad in Iraq. The event gathered students, faculty members and high-level government authorities.
Unite4Heritage was really an outcome of my visit to Iraq after Da’ish invaded, took over Mosul and started this terrible destruction of the museum that was seen by so many on YouTube. Two months later I went to Baghdad, to Erbil, to some of the refugee camps close to Mosul in order to understand what was happening and how we could help the people and the government of Iraq recover from this terrible blow with the destruction of heritage.
After I came back, I was thinking about what more we could do in order to sensitize world public opinion, predominantly young people, about the importance of heritage and culture. And we came up with the idea to launch a social network campaign because I think it is very important to use all these new channels of communication. It’s very inclusive. You can reach a wider spectrum of people, and predominantly young people.
I decided to launch this campaign not here in Paris, but in Iraq. So, six months after my first visit, I went back to Iraq. I went to the University of Baghdad and launched the campaign there because I saw how thirsty the young people there were for support, for openness. They wanted to be part of a global movement of exchange and opportunities. It was a fantastic event. I still have a lot of very warm memories about the students in this university who were so proud to participate in this campaign. I’m happy to say that nowadays we’ve heard from millions of young people who are uploading images and sharing their ideas through this campaign.
We launched the same campaign with young people in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, and in museums in Beirut, in Jordan, in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, and in many other places. I’m happy to say that last April, Yale University, as well as many other universities joined the campaign. Unite4Heritage enables people to exchange ideas, to support each other, and also it is a way to create dialogue amongst cultures, because in this campaign, we have people from different regions, faiths, religions, ethnicities of the world. And they all, at the end of the day, are united by an understanding that we have to respect and cherish our common heritage.
This notion of common heritage is becoming so much important nowadays. We go to different places, we see the label of UNESCO World Heritage, and we take it for granted that these places should be protected, that this is part of our history. But the underlying reason for inscribing a site, a temple, a mosque, a church, or a synagogue on the World Heritage List, is its outstanding universal value. Once it is recognized and is on the List, we start to respect it even if it does not belong to our culture, our religion, our faith. The key here is universality. So, we have to go back to this understanding, we have to defend this notion. By launching the Unite4Heritage campaign, we’re explicitly trying to instill this understanding that heritage is humanity.
Meg: Best Cultural Destinations celebrates our unique differences and our shared human condition, so that certainly resonates. When you were initially elected as Director General in 2009, you were both the first woman and the first Southeastern European to take this role. Did you feel any special scrutiny or pressure?
Irina: Everybody, practically everybody, was telling me ‘Oh, we have a lot of hope, we expect a lot from you because you are the first woman’ and ‘You are the first East European’, but particularly the first woman. At some point I joked with people and said ‘Look, treat me as you would a man. Don’t put higher expectations on me than you put on a male director general.’ But you’re right. I felt a lot more scrutiny. Especially at the beginning, I felt a lot more attention, for good or for bad. But at the end of the day, I think at some point all this faded away and then we started working as usual.
But I insisted very much on achieving a better gender balance within UNESCO. Now it’s a totally different culture in the organization because I increased immensely the gender balance of the senior management staff. So now, we are almost equal women and men in management positions, going from something like twenty, 25%, we are now 50%. I consider this to be a big achievement because I think in any organization, there needs to be a critical mass of women in key positions and for this to be normal and not to be an exception. I believe I have achieved this at UNESCO and I have to say I’m very proud of this.
Irina Bokova & Bulgaria: From Soviet to EU
Meg: As well you should be. Also at the time that you were elected as Director-General of UNESCO, The New York Times wrote that you ‘played an active role in Bulgaria’s political transformation from Soviet satellite to European Union member.’ Can you describe that transformation, and looking back, what it taught you about politics, about people, and about yourself?
Irina: Well, it was a fantastic time. I would say very romantic even, it was the time of change and transformation. And of course, it started with Gorbachev and perestroika in the Soviet Union at that time, and we were following very, very enthusiastically everything that was happening there because we were a young generation of professionals and diplomats.
Immediately after that, I became a member of the Constituent National Assembly when we were drafting the new Bulgarian Constitution. I was one of those who were fighting against capital punishment. I organized the first round table discussion on human rights, and then, later on, I also had the opportunity to become the first negotiator for Bulgaria joining the European Union. I also very enthusiastically worked with civil society experts on research about Bulgaria joining the European Union. I say romantic years because I believe there was a huge enthusiasm about transformation, about change, about Bulgaria integrating with Europe and with the world, about incorporating all these values of democracy, of human rights, into our society.
I think it happens once in a lifetime or it doesn’t happen at all. My generation was lucky enough to be part of this change and to participate in it. We didn’t have textbooks. We didn’t know how to do it. Maybe sometimes we were going back and forth, but finally we did it. Of course, our children will take over. But it was probably one of the most fantastic years in my life. I’m very happy that I could do something for my country.
Meg: You have identified UNESCO as ‘the essential soft power actor.’ And while that term, soft power, has been around for a while, for those who aren’t familiar with it, can you share your definition of soft power?
Irina: In fact, this term, soft power was first mentioned some years ago by Joseph Knight, who was at that time president of Harvard University. I constantly hesitate whether to add ‘smart power’. Soft doesn’t mean that it’s not powerful, that it is something that is not as important as the hard power of, say, military action. Because I firmly believe that nowadays in the world, the challenges are so different than at the time of the Second World War and the Cold War. Now we see a deep transformation in societies. We see constant change. We see civil wars. We see destruction of heritage, of societies. We see the rise of violent extremism in democracies. We see terrorist attacks in practically any part of the world. This is something, unfortunately, we have to live with. And you can’t fight this type of violent extremism or terrorism just with military means. Of course, it’s very important to push extremists away. But nowadays, the war and the fight is for the hearts and minds of predominantly young people. So, this is where entities like UNESCO come into the picture because you cannot prevent violent extremism only through military means. You have to go to education. You have to go to skills. You have to go to social inclusion. You have to have an intercultural dialogue. You have to show respect, you have to see diversity as something that we live in every single day. This is where I think the soft power of UNESCO lies.
At UNESCO we have done enormous work to prevent violent extremism through education.
I’m just coming from a very interesting conference in India at our Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development, where we work in cognitive ways to educate. We train teachers. We review curricula to prevent violent extremism. For example, we are currently reviewing textbooks in Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and Tunisia from that point of view. Just two months ago, the king of Morocco invited me to go with him to Fez, which is a World Heritage Site, the old Medina. It was the capital of literature, of philosophy, and it also became the capital of the Moors when they were expelled from Spain. Along with the king, we launched five Madrasah religious schools, which were reconstructed. It was important that these Madrasah are part of our effort to educate people, to give them skills, and to tell them – yes, you may have your religious education but you have to have knowledge about the other people and their religions and you have to respect them. I believe what we are doing may not be that visible, may not be that spectacular. But it is so important nowadays if we really want to achieve peace in societies, because we don’t have any other option. We have to live together.
Meg: If you could invite readers to take three specific actions that could really make a difference in fostering cultural respect, what would you ask people to do?
Irina: I think people should know their history and should be aware of the values of heritage. They should have respect for cultural diversity which is inseparable from respect for human rights. Finally, I would encourage young people to be more engaged in maintaining tolerance and fighting against all forms of racism and xenophobia. In a world full of opportunities presented by new technologies, but also of manifestations of violent extremism, young people should have a sense of empathy and solidarity towards the others.
Meg: Your term as UNESCO’s Director-General ends in just a couple of weeks. What’s next?
Irina: There are so many causes to support and take forward at different universities and associations, like the fight against violent extremism, protection of cultural heritage, gender equality. I’ve invested a lot in these areas at UNESCO and I intend to continue working in the same spirit and with the same degree of responsibility and commitment.
Header Photo: UNSC Resolution 2347, by Pauline Dowdall
Publisher and editor of www.BestCulturalDestinations.com (BCD), which profiles people engaged in creating & preserving culture, and celebrates our unique differences and shared human condition. BCD defines “Best Cultural Destinations” as those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection.