30.03.2008 - SHSviews 19

Interview with Koïchiro Matsuura: ‘Social and human sciences play an indispensable role.’

in SHSviews 19

As the world commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Director-General of UNESCO stresses the crucial role that the Organization has played and will continue to play in the promotion of the principles enshrined in the Declaration. He also clarifies the role of the social and human sciences in the new medium-term strategy of the Organization, particularly with respect to dealing with the ethical and social dimensions of such trends as globalization and climate change.

On 10 December 2007, during a ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, you announced the launch of a year-long commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Why and how will UNESCO contribute to this anniversary?

UNESCO’s contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been significant from the earliest stages of its elaboration and adoption. As the Declaration was being drafted, UNESCO launched an enquiry into the relevant theoretical issues involving various distinguished thinkers and writers around the world, which confirmed that the basic human rights values embody common aspirations across the existing national, cultural and political boundaries. Immediately after the signing of the Declaration, UNESCO became the first entity within the United Nations system to adopt its principles in every field of its action, and to take the responsibility for globally promoting this landmark document.

This responsibility is as important today as ever before. For UNESCO, the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Declaration takes on particular significance – it will be an opportunity to assess the situation with regard to the rights within UNESCO’s competence, such as the right to education, to highlight the advancements, to analyse the shortcomings and to reflect on challenges that could become major obstacles to the implementation of human rights in the future. Towards this end, two international conferences, as well as various other awareness-raising activities, will be organized throughout the year in coordination with other relevant United Nations entities. This is in addition to our regular activities that promote human rights, such as UNESCO’s human rights mainstreaming programme and the award of the Prize for Human Rights Education.

Are human rights violations among the major obstacles for UNESCO in attaining Quality Education for All?

Obviously, by working to attain quality education for all, UNESCO is contributing to the fulfilment of a fundamental human right to education, which is, in itself, the manifestation of the interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights. We should never forget that it is education that provides individuals with the means to participate actively in the political, economic and cultural life of society.

One other significant obstacle to fulfilling people’s right to education is poverty. Poverty deprives one third of the world’s population from developing their potential and their talents and prevents them from living a life compatible with human dignity. Tens of millions of people, especially girls, have no access to school, and therefore no chance to improve their lives. It is no coincidence that the eradication of poverty has been designated by the international community as the first of the eight Millennium Development Goals.

Alongside attaining Quality Education for All, mobilizing science knowledge and policy for sustainable development was made one of UNESCO’s key priorities for 2008-2013. Why did the Member States of UNESCO choose to focus on this issue during the 34th General Conference held in October 2007?

This choice is conditioned by a shared belief that scientific and technological progress can provide answers to the problems of development. Scientific progress is bringing many positive changes to our daily lives. The cutting-edge medical technologies are prolonging and improving the quality of people’s lives. Now, there is effective treatment for many formely incurable diseases. The new advances in information technologies bring people at opposite corners of the earth closer together and give them access to vast information resources.

However, the benefits of scientific progress do not trickle down equally for every person or society. This is the reason why UNESCO is committed to continuing its efforts to clarify the content of the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, which is considered by many experts to be an ‘underdeveloped’ right, and is within UNESCO’s fields of competence. At the same time, we must be aware of the delicate balance that exists between the realization of this human right and the need to protect intellectual property. Moreover, development fuelled by scientific progress cannot be sustainable without the ethical and human dimensions.

Another key priority for UNESCO for the next six years is the urgent need to address emerging social and ethical challenges. How will the social and human sciences help the Organization deal with these challenges?

Scientific progress and its application, if not guided by ethical principles, can have adverse affects on people’s lives, and might in fact contribute to the violation of some of the basic human rights. Drawing on its intellectual mandate, UNESCO strives to help Member States anticipate the challenges posed by such scientific advancements as cloning. As you know, UNESCO has played a pioneering role in the field of bioethics and ethics of science and technology, adopting the first instruments in these fields.

The social and human sciences play an indispensable role in the efforts of UNESCO to reveal and elaborate the ethical and social dimensions of the major global trends, such as globalization, climate change, and rapid scientific progress. In order to equip Member States with the necessary policy tools for dealing with the emerging social and ethical issues, the MOST programme of the Social and Human Sciences Sector will focus in the coming years on strengthening national and regional research systems. The online tool that the MOST programme recently launched on UNESCO’s website, which opens access for policy-makers to cutting edge social science research, is a major step towards this end.

In your closing statement at the 34th General Conference of UNESCO, you emphasized the ‘consensus’ which is the main asset of the Organization. Does consensus come at a price?

Reaching consensus in an Organization that now numbers 193 Member States is not an easy task, especially on controversial and sensitive issues. But it is a principle well worth the required efforts.

I consider the principle of consensus to be one of the major assets of this Organization. Reaching a consensus, of course, does not mean the absence of differences of opinion. Quite the contrary – UNESCO is precisely the place for intercultural debate, which allows the Member States to reach mutually acceptable solutions to complex issues.

Most fundamentally, it is the belief in UNESCO’s important contribution to building international peace and security that drives every Member State towards consensus. Earlier, we mentioned the imperative of sharing scientific progress, which can only be realized in the atmosphere of an ongoing dialogue between cultures and civilizations. That is why the intercultural dialogue remains a priority for UNESCO. The Social and Human Sciences Sector will take a leading role in promoting dialogue among civilizations and cultures and a culture of peace through philosophy, the human sciences, good governance, the promotion of human rights and the fight against discrimination.

Interview by Irakli Khodeli

Koïchiro Matsuura

Before his election in 1999 and re-election in 2005 as Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura had a long and distinguished career in international affairs that spans several continents. Born in Tokyo in 1937 and educated in the field of law, his diplomatic career commenced with his posting to Ghana in 1961 and includes, among other functions, serving as Counsellor at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC, as Consul General in Hong Kong, as Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, and as Japan’s Ambassador to France.

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