Q: November 16, 2010, marked 65 years since the foundation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This is quite an anniversary. In retrospect do you think UNESCO has lived up to this task?
Eleonora MITROFANOVA: UNESCO was founded right after the Second World War to promote international understanding and cooperation by advancing education, science and culture for the benefit of humanity. Globally renowned scientists, prominent politicians and community activists, all aware of the need for such an organization, came together to get it up and running.
UNESCO’s formative years were marred by Cold War confrontations and its policies took shape under the influence of momentous historical events, such as decolonization and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Like all major international institutions, UNESCO periodically comes under fire, but I don’t think anyone would deny that, over the years of its existence, the organization has made a substantial contribution to the cause of consolidating global peace and security.
These days, UNESCO functions as something of an “ideas lab,” a forum for sharing creative ideas. It also works to build up its member states’ potential and to boost international cooperation in education, culture, and science.
UNESCO serves as an umbrella organization for hundreds of research centers, affiliated schools and universities, libraries, museums, and associations of professional artists across the world. Its efforts to foster interaction between all these institutions have earned it global acclaim. So UNESCO is definitely living up to its mission statement.
Q: How does UNESCO stand out amongst the other UN agencies?
E.MITROFANOVA: UNESCO is working in close cooperation both with the “Greater” UN and with all affiliated bodies committed to human development, notably UNDP, UNICEF, and UNFPA. This cooperation is essential if we want our efforts to be focused and to complement each other.
As you know, each of these well respected and world renowned agencies has its own fields of competence, such as international aid, maternal and infant wellbeing, and demographic imbalances, to name just a few. UNESCO’s No. 1 priority – education – is high on the UN Millennium Development Goals. The heads of these UN agencies gathered in New York on November 5 this year to consider obstacles to achieving our goals in the global Education for All Program, by 2015. The meeting, held at UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova’s suggestion, emphasized the crucial role that education plays in sustainable development.
Getting back to your question as to what makes UNESCO distinct, let me remind you that its primary goal was originally to promote intellectual and moral solidarity among humankind, thereby preventing a new world war from breaking out. This goal remains relevant to this day.
The organization seeks to raise public awareness about the importance of sustaining peace, and works to promote the ethical aspects of human communication, such as tolerance, mutual understanding, dialogue, and a culture of peace.
UNESCO does have its own role to play on the global stage. What it shares with all its counterparts throughout the United Nations, though, is a commitment to working for world peace, and for the well-being of every individual nation. And it is up to the member states to decide which approach is best suited to achieve that goal.
Q: In order to stay relevant UNESCO has to constantly readjust to the shifting realities of the contemporary world, right? How would you define the organization’s role today in our world?
E.MITROFANOVA: Yes, absolutely, UNESCO is a living organism, and hence is constantly changing. Our primary task is to reform the organization to ensure it can respond to new challenges as promptly and efficiently as possible. We’re facing numerous challenges now, and new ones crop up almost on a daily basis. They are related to the side effects of globalization as well as of poverty, hunger, disease, societal inequality within a state, including women’s rights, and development gaps between nations.
Our key priorities also include relief efforts in countries suffering from the aftermath of natural disasters and armed conflicts. UNESCO’s rapid response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan earlier this year are two of the most recent examples of such relief aid. We cooperate closely with the “Greater” UN in all such efforts. [In Haiti and Pakistan], it’s no longer about a relief effort per se, but rather about a long-term action plan aimed at getting the two countries back on track.
I’ve mentioned just a few major tasks here, but behind each such task, there’s a whole set of smaller issues to tackle. Many of these are quite complex and even sensitive.
So obviously, UNESCO is very much in demand now, perhaps more than ever before. But, of course, the organization needs to reinvent itself constantly to make sure it delivers as much as it can. Director General Irina Bokova and all the member states work hard to make that happen. The Executive Board which is now headed by a Russian representative also does its bit.
But the above is true not just of UNESCO. In fact, all the UN agencies are undergoing reform, to ensure they can provide an adequate response to the threats and challenges of the 21st century.
Q: As chair of the UNESCO Executive Board, how would you gauge the current level of your agency’s interaction with Russia? What does Russia get out of it?
E.MITROFANOVA: This country has been a UNESCO member state since April 21, 1954. We decided to join because we were in complete agreement with the UNESCO Constitution, which gives the organization’s purpose as being “to contribute to the building of peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.” It’s about building peace in people’s minds as well as world peace.
We’ve come a long way over these years, notably in education, which, as I said, is the agency’s No. 1 priority. In Russia, we are working proactively to implement UNESCO’s University Twinning and Networking Programme (UNITWIN), created to encourage inter-university cooperation around the world and to stimulate research, indispensable to technological advances and sustainable development.
UNESCO associated schools, which are now open in many Russian regions, exist to introduce young Russians to the ideals and values of our organization, thereby promoting intercultural dialogue: promoting the culture of peace and cultivating tolerance. Since children are our common future, we are thus laying solid foundations for a world based upon respect for individuality and human rights, a world without violence and war.
In keeping with a resolution passed by the 35th session of UNESCO’s General Assembly, Moscow hosted a World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education in September this year. This was the first such forum to take place in the organization’s history. We decided to raise the issue for general discussion because it is in early childhood that a person’s basic personal qualities (how they think, their memory and ability to concentrate) are molded. These faculties are indispensable for life-long learning. And, as is known, a nation’s well-being depends on how every single young person in that country develops.
The forum culminated in the adoption of an action plan consistent with UNESCO’s current Education for All program to be implemented before 2015, and aimed at facilitating its implementation.
But that’s just one area of our wide-ranging cooperation. Beyond that, we cooperate extensively in culture and the arts, carry out collaborative research projects in the natural sciences, and make joint efforts toward safeguarding the world’s cultural and natural heritage.
As for how Russia stands to benefit, let me quote the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who has repeatedly said that the UN’s efficiency is determined by the efficiency of interaction between its member states. This also holds true for UNESCO.
Every member nation has the right to raise any issue of concern for common consideration. Most issues are resolved collectively, with consensus decision making being one of our organization’s basic rules. So, whatever a vote’s outcome, no one can take offence.
We also collaborate in setting our priorities.
At the moment UNESCO is focused on the following five areas: education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, communication and information. All these themes are listed in the organization’s Program and its current two-year budget.
Related, intersecting priorities, incorporated into programs in each of the above domains, include education, Africa, and gender equality.
Preparation is underway of a new medium-term UNESCO strategy, to replace the current Strategy for 2008-2013.
Russia is contributing proactively to the development of this and other underlying UNESCO documents, and many of our delegation’s proposals garner wide support among fellow members. So, I don’t think it would be fair to say that Russia is following its own, narrow agenda through its involvement in UNESCO. Our ideas all feature in the organization’s fundamental documents, which were adopted by consensus.
Q: And in conclusion, could you tell us about some of 2010’s cultural highlights, the year, of course, was proclaimed by UNESCO as the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.
E.MITROFANOVA: It’s true that many UNESCO-sponsored events this year took place within the framework of the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures, and we’ve done a lot in this regard.
To me, the most memorable was the series of events UNESCO organized this past May to mark the 65th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in WWII. The most spectacular event was, perhaps, a gala concert by the CIS Youth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by renowned Russian conductor and UNESCO Artist for Peace Vladimir Spivakov. Their musical program included works by the famous Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Incidentally this year marked the 170th anniversary of his birth, and was celebrated throughout the year. The concert closed with the screening of WWII news reels to the accompaniment of a popular Russian song devoted to V-E Day. The audience gave the young musicians a standing ovation, and I have to say, at that moment, we were overwhelmed with pride.
Another highlight was the launch, on the initiative of the Russian and Slovenian presidents, of the Forum of Slavic Cultures, which took place in the UNESCO headquarters on May 25. Delegations from Russia and other Slavic countries helped organize a gala concert featuring Russia’s National Orchestra of Folk Instruments and soloists from fellow Slavonic nations (Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine), and Moldova.
Spiritually, we are all very similar, which is why this Forum plays an important role in the preservation and enhancement of the intangible cultural heritage shared by all Slavonic peoples which is a precious part of world culture. So, hopefully, this festival will become a regular event.
These are just two of the many memorable cultural events that have taken place so far this year. But 2010 isn’t over yet, and we would be happy to see you among our guests at the forthcoming UNESCO anniversary celebrations, to be held on December 14.