French ex-culture minister confirmed as new UNESCO head

PARIS — UNESCO member states on Friday overwhelmingly approved the nomination of France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay to head the embattled cultural agency.

They confirmed the nomination by the agency’s board last month of Azoulay, 45, who becomes UNESCO’s second woman director-general.

“The unity you have shown in this vote is a good omen for the coming period, in which we need to stand shoulder to shoulder,” Azoulay told the members after garnering 131 votes with only 19 opposed.

The campaign was also overshadowed by Washington’s announcement that it planned to withdraw from the Paris-based body after years of tensions, citing its “continuing anti-Israel bias.”

Following the US announcement, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said UNESCO had become a forum for Israel-bashing and had forgotten its original purpose. It was now “paying the price” for the “shameful” decisions it has adopted against Israel, he said, citing “a new era” dawning at the UN in which “anti-Israel discrimination” had consequences.

Israel is also considering pulling out.

In recent months, the Paris-based body delighted Palestinians when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered Palestinian world heritage site. It has also passed several resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, drawing Israel’s fury.

Israeli officials have stepped up lobbying at the world body in recent years, charging it with passing one-sided resolutions that obsessively target Israel.

“To rebuild unity, we must promote UNESCO’s assets and know-how and that of its members,” Azoulay told AFP in an interview.

The Paris-based cultural, scientific and cultural organisation “must show through its actions that UNESCO is addressing the challenges of globalization today,” said the 45-year-old.

She said she would seek to “reduce a certain amount of tensions” but conceded that they would “always exist”.

The vote that saw Azoulay succeed outgoing UNESCO chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington’s announcement that it planned to withdraw from the body after years of strained relations over decisions seen as critical of Israel.

In 2011 US president Barack Obama suspended funding for UNESCO — about 22 percent of its annual budget — for accepting Palestine as a member.

The decision by Obama’s successor Donald Trump to withdraw from the body will take effect at the end of 2018, when Washington will establish an “observer mission” to replace its UNESCO representation.

“But UNESCO must keep the door open and continue to work with American civil society,” said Azoulay, who was culture minister under the Socialist president Francois Hollande for a little over a year until he left office in May.

“We must nip divisive issues in the bud, find joint solutions” and avoid issues that UNESCO cannot resolve — “which is not its function by the way”, Azoulay said.

She recognized that the sprawling 72-year-old body is “sometimes paralyzed or taken hostage by disputes that it cannot resolve”.

Azoulay narrowly defeated Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari of Qatar, also a former culture minister, in last month’s politically charged election.

Al-Kawari failed to pick up support from other Gulf states which are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar.

In the face of the Arab divisions, France presented Azoulay, who is Jewish of Moroccan origin, as a consensus figure who could mend fences and soothe tensions with Israel.

She also faces the daunting job of reforming the agency struggling under the weight of a bureaucracy that has become unwieldy over the seven decades since it was founded.

She said she had “great faith” in UNESCO, which “bears the genuine power to transform the world.”

Azoulay said members were “clear-sighted as to the organization’s difficulties (but) know how irreplaceable and essential it is in the face of our world’s challenges.”

Azoulay, who was culture minister under former president Francois Hollande, succeeds Irina Bokova, who was UNESCO’s first woman director-general and whose second term expires this month.

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