UNESCO’s General Conference: Forward momentum at the end of Week One

UNESCO’s strategy and direction for the next eight years are taking a promising shape, as the Organization’s General Conference enters into its second week on 12 November. The General Conference is the governing body that brings together the UNESCO’s 195 Member States and nine Associate Members. 

“The world needs more UNESCO”, Director-General Irina Bokova stressed during its opening session. The way forward is “to build on our shared values of human dignity, equality and mutual respect, on our common objective to craft a more inclusive and effective multilateral order”. An organization dedicated to building the defences of peace in the minds of men and women, UNESCO has a special responsibility to contribute to the global agenda by stressing the central role played by the intellectual, scientific and cultural fabric of societies in development processes. 

The General Conference opened on Tuesday, 5 November, with the acceptance of Anguilla as a new Associate Member, and the election of Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education in China, as President of its 37th session. Mr Ping has distinguished himself for his commitment to education, and his appeal to renew global standard-setting instruments on the recognition of higher education. Speaking of unsustainable models of industrialization developed over the past two centuries, the President stressed the “urgent need to revolutionize ways of development while relying on innovations that are offered by science and technology.” 

© UNESCO/Emilien Urbano
Dr. Hao Ping, President of the 37th session of UNESCO General Conference.

(left to right) S. Exc. Ms Laura Chinchilla, President of the Republic of Costa Rica meeting S. Exc. M. Moncef Marzouki, President of the Republic of Tunisia.

On 6 November, the General Conference hosted a new edition of the Leaders’ Forum, exploring the unique ways UNESCO can contribute to a new set of development goals after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015, through education, the sciences, cultural and communication and information. This forward-looking policy dialogue featured keynote addresses by the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla; the President of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, and the Prime Minister of Lithuania, Algirdas Butkevicius as well as ministers from 54 countries. For the Director-General, answers to the debate lie in UNESCO’s Constitution: lasting peace and sustainable development can only be built in the minds of women and men, which drive “the creativity, the innovation every society needs today.” In a landmark consultation taking place on the margins of the General Conference, Ministers of Education from the five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – agreed to join forces with UNESCO to support education progress globally. Education is at the top of the countries’ agendas. The centrality of education to development, growth and employment, and the urgency of deepening cooperation in order to address common challenges, was underscored by all BRICS Ministers.

President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, addressed the plenary of the General Conference on 7 November, exhorting the international community to overcome poverty. “Vanquishing poverty is the most important moral imperative in the world considering that, for the first time in human history, poverty is not caused by a lack of resources or natural factors, but by an unjust system that breeds exclusion,” he declared. Read highlights from his speech here.

© UNESCO/Emilien Urbano
President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa

© UNESCO/Nora Hougenade
President of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno

On 9 November, the United States lost its right to vote in the General Assembly because it had not paid its dues to UNESCO for two years - ever since the Organization voted to admit Palestine in November 2011.  Legislation passed in the 1990s prevents the U.S. from supporting any UN organization that recognizes Palestine in advance of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East.  The Director-General expressed her regret at this decision, in this statement. She concluded with a determined vision for the way forward: “I will continue to work for the universality of this Organization, for the support of the United States, to the values we share, to the objectives we hold in common, of an effective multilateral order and a more peaceful, more just world.” 

Finally, on 11 November, the President of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno, offered UNESCO a skull mould of Toumaï, the oldest known hominid - estimated to be seven million years old. “The discovery of this skull upsets our understanding of our origins; its historical, scientific and anthropological significance is considerable… Here we get at the very gist of UNESCO’s mandate – to build humanity’s intellectual and moral solidarity through the power of science,” said the Director-General. 

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