Heads of State and Government voice powerful support for multilateral action and UNESCO at Leaders Forum

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©UNESCO/Nora Houguenade
01 November 2017

Leaders from Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and the South Pacific today delivered resounding pleas for multilateral efforts to tackle the challenges facing the world at UNESCO’s Leaders Forum on 31st October.

Highlighting the importance of concerted action to tackle disparate challenges including extremist radicalization and climate change, the leaders took the floor during the third edition of the Leaders Forum, which, since 2013, has been coming together during UNESCO’s General Conference, which assembles its 195 Members States every two years.

Zohour Alaoui, the President of the 39th session of the General Conference welcomed participants to what she described as a prospective dialogue entitled this year, The Sustainable Development Goals and UNESCO’s Role in the Multilateral System. “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development was adopted two years ago,” the President of the 39th session of the General Conference said. “Since then, UNESCO has been working to ensure that Member States manage the transition of their societies in the most inclusive manner possible and that nobody is left behind.”

In her address, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO declared: “Today, when we see the rise of doctrines based on withdrawal and rejection of others, I believe we need the same courage and the same commitment towards peace, dialogue and empathy,” as were needed in 1945 when UNESCO was created in the wake of World War II. “This is what I have called a new humanism,” she added. “In these times of limits – limits of resources, limits of the planet - we must invest in the potential of human ingenuity, in the power of innovation, quality education and scientific research, in the power of dialogue. This is our ultimate renewable energy.”

Olivier Solonandrasana Mahafaly, Prime Minister of the Republic of Madagascar, welcomed the theme for the forum. “Madagascar believes that the time has come to share all available resources to focus UNESCO’s programmes on the challenges facing our States in education, the enhancement of human resources, the protection of the environment, to name but a few. In the face of these challenges, multilateralism is our greatest asset. We must work in solidarity, pool our actions and expertise to achieve the SDGs. I also invite UNESCO to promote the innovative funding methods needed to support actions already undertaken.”

Miroslav Lajčák, President of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, highlighted the progress achieved by the UN over 72 years and cited recent multilateral agreements on climate change, security and peace. “These agreements are not like regular contracts. They do not tell us what will happen if a party is in breach, or does not fulfil its duties. That is because the challenges which brought them about are too urgent and interconnected for this,” he argued. “UNESCO plays a critical role in our multilateral system. It has rallied actors from all over the world to protect our shared cultural heritage. It has promoted cooperation for advances in education, science and technology, which benefit us all. […] I regret the decision of Member States to withdraw from membership of UNESCO. […] Make no mistake, any loss for multilateralism is a loss for people and our humanity.

In his address, Bakir Izetbegovic, Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, described UNESCO as a true partner to the government and people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, notably thanks to its contribution to the preservation of the country’s “cultural and multicultural heritage.” […] “The peace agreement [of 1995] integrated cultural heritage preservation. This was a first in a peace agreement,” he said. “We all remember when the Old Bridge of Mostar was destroyed, but we also all remember the date of when it was rebuilt. The reconstruction of the old bridge initiated a process of fruitful regional cooperation to preserve culture.” Mr Izetbegovic went on to argue “there can be no lasting peace when injustice and inequalities are the daily reality of so many people. Injustice and inequality make our societies vulnerable. […] In many places of the world, people cannot rebuild bridges without the help of the international community. UNESCO has always had a role in building bridges in education, science, culture and communication, let us keep it so.”

Mohammad Sarwar Danesh, Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan spoke of his government’s progress in UNESCO’s fields of competence, since the fall of the Taliban. Invoking progress in education, notably girls’ education and in the development of independent media, the Vice-President highlighted the crucial role of international cooperation in protecting these achievements from the attacks of terrorists from all over the world. “Let us lead a global cultural movement against terrorism by repairing destroyed historical sites and protecting other remaining heritage and strengthening of cultures of all nations. UNESCO should take the lead of this movement. We believe a world with UNESCO is more beautiful and brighter. A World without UNESCO would be a dark and lightless world. In a world without education, science and culture, only terror, fear and violence would rule.”

Henry Puna, Prime minister of Cook Islands, spoke of the interconnection between all the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda. “While UNESCO obviously responded to those of its direct mandate, such as SDG 4 on education, SDG 5 on gender, the work of IHP on SDG 6 and on water and sanitation or the role of both the Communications and SHS programmes in contributing to SDG 16 as examples, the reality is, UNESCO contributes to all the goals of our global agenda,” he argued.

“There is huge diversity amongst the starting point of Member States both across, and within, the goals. How UNESCO programmes areas develop their own plans, will need to ensure a modality of working from the ground up, finding the points of commonality, whilst supporting individual results. Dare I say it, much like a teacher planning a lesson for a class of different levels, and learning styles.”

Boil Banov, Minister of Culture, Special Representative of the Government of the Republic of Bulgaria, described UNESCO as a unique institution. “One of its core values is to spread humanism,” he said. “We need to make very responsible decisions because the future of the human species is at stake. UNESCO must play a very important role. The 2030 agenda is an innovative agenda in that it recognizes that there can be no development without lasting peace,” which underscores the importance of UNESCO for its implementation. “This is an organization that has taken innovative action in the fields of education, science culture and youth. It has stood in opposition of violence, racism and discrimination. UNESCO has always upheld the view that culture shapes identity and self-image and we wouldn’t know who we were without the heritage of thousands of years of culture. Safeguarding cultural heritage is therefore important to recognize the efforts that have been undertaken before us and promote mutual understanding and intercultural dialogue.

The President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita focused on the ordeals experienced by his country due to fundamentalist violence and thanked the commitment of the Director-General of UNESCO. “Under your initiative, UNESCO launched an ambitious campaign to rebuild World Heritage in Mali. […] Our indignation is great at scenes of destruction of properties that belong to humanity as a whole and bear testimony to the creativity of human civilizations. Just as great as our indignation, is our open wrath at the dallying of the international community. The world cannot just watch as mercenaries erase centuries of traces of our shared history.”

“The world is facing violent extremism and other challenges that threaten peace in the world, the condition for any development. These challenges justify the need to reinforce the role of UNESCO and our collaboration with it,” said the President before invoking the need for us to be worthy of the Organization’s founders who were convinced that, in the words of UNESCO’s Constitution, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”