The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, visited Baghdad and Erbil on 2 November, to stand with the people and Government of Iraq in the face of attacks by radical extremists on minority groups and against the country’s cultural and religious heritage. The visit followed two recent decisions by UNESCO’s Executive Board to reinforce the Organization’s work with Iraq, focusing in particular on education and heritage.
During meetings in Baghdad with the country’s President, Fuad Masum, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, and government ministers, the Director-General pledged UNESCO will step up efforts to support reconciliation and national dialogue, starting in work with all partners to safeguard Iraq’s millennial cultural heritage and diversity, and prevent the looting and trafficking of cultural artefacts to fuel the underground market and extremist groups. This was the message she sent at the Baghdad National Museum as well as during the ceremony to hand-over the inscription certificate for the Erbil Citadel to the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani. While in Erbil, the Director-General met with representatives of Iraqi minorities–including Assyrian, Chaledean, Yezedi, Turkomen, Shabak, Baha’i, Sabean Mandean and Kaka’i communities—and expressed her outrage at the systematic attacks against them.
Throughout the visit, the Director-General highlighted also the importance of education for the future for Iraq – as a human rights, a development and a security imperative. She underlined UNESCO’s commitment to support the Government in ensuring that quality education is delivered to all young Iraqis – including those who are internally displaced – in order to provide them with relevant skills and to ensure respect for human rights, dialogue and tolerance. In Erbil, the Director-General laid the first concrete block for a secondary school that UNESCO is building for IDPs at the Baharka Camp.
Freedom of the press was another concern addressed by the Director-General during her visit, which coincided with the celebration of the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Deploring the degradation of the safety of journalists in the country, Ms Bokova highlighted the importance of the media and freedom of expression to the rule of law and good governance, along with education and cultural preservation, to help the country come out of crisis, heal wounds and rally around a shared project of reconstruction.