She is the first woman and first Eastern European to lead the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

During her almost decade-long tenure, 64-year-old Irina Bokova has streamlined UNESCO’s bureaucracy and simplified its mandate. The Bulgarian native is passionate about women’s rights and has combatted the financing of terrorism through illicit trafficking in cultural goods as part of her role as director-general of UNESCO, a position she has held since 2009. As her tenure nears its end, Irina Bokova gives a rare interview and reflects on the role that has been the pinnacle of her career, which she built as an international diplomat while bringing up two children and sitting in Bulgaria’s parliament, where she helped draft the country’s constitution.

UNESCO has a broad mandate, from addressing gender inequality and climate change to training journalists. Did you shape that mandate?

I do not think UNESCO’s mandate is very broad. On the contrary, it is very clear, specific and unique. UNESCO is the “soft power” agency of the United Nations. We build peace and foster mutual understanding, as well as moral and intellectual solidarity to prevent mistrust, hatred and conflict. When violent extremists today target cultural heritage, schools and libraries, places of worship and knowledge, they seek to destroy what makes us human beings, and this is exactly what UNESCO has been created to defend.

My mandate is to make UNESCO more relevant and visible. We review structures and programmes, organise them more effectively on a more focused basis and allocate resources for the largest impact. The results are effective across the board, with UNESCO taking a lead position at the heart of the United Nations system.

UNESCO’s efforts to preserve and protect World Heritage sites in Iraq and Syria failed. What more could have been done to prevent these from being destroyed?

State parties are responsible for the protection of the World Heritage sites on their territories. UNESCO does not intervene through military action on the ground. UNESCO cannot stop a rocket targeted towards a monument. What we can and have been doing in Syria and Iraq is to mobilise partners to document and assess damages, and protect and shelter cultural objects. Hundreds of thousands of cultural objects from Iraq and Syria have been put in safe places. UNESCO has brought together member states to put the protection of culture at the heart of all efforts to build peace. This has been done, successfully, in Mali for instance, where the mausoleums have been rebuilt and a war criminal sentenced to nine years in prison.

It is only recently that there has been a radical shift in the way people understand the social importance of heritage, and UNESCO has been instrumental in fostering this change.

It’s known that ISIS is using precious artefacts to finance terrorism. What measures has UNESCO put in place to make it more difficult for terrorists to sell these on the black market?

UNESCO adopted the most influential and important international convention against illicit trafficking in 1970. We work continuously for the universal ratification and full implementation of this international legal framework, together with the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. This normative basis has recently been strengthened, with a more effective monitoring mechanism, and with the adoption in 2015 of Resolution 2199 of the Security Council, which adopts an international ban on cultural trade originating from Syria and Iraq, and recognises illicit trade of cultural property as a source of terrorism financing.

In order to implement these instruments, I have brought together relevant international organisations, including INTERPOL, UNODC, WCO, UNIDROIT, the UN Sanctions Monitoring Team and ICOM, to enhance information sharing and coordination in order to disrupt the ability of terrorist groups to benefit from the smuggling of cultural property.

Additionally, UNESCO works regularly with professionals from the public and private sectors (art market, judiciary, museums, academics) on emergency situations where cultural heritage is targeted (armed conflict and natural disaster).

Have you considered delisting these sites in Iraq and Syria? If not, how will you work with these countries to build the sites back up?

The World Heritage Convention is an instrument of international cooperation and not of sanction. Today, it is too early to consider the potential delisting of World Heritage sites that have suffered from intentional or collateral destruction. However, during the recovery phase, once a full assessment of the situation is made, it is likely that there will be a need to revise the statements of Outstanding Universal Value for these sites, and possibly their boundaries.

How has UNESCO closed the gap on gender inequality in developed economies?

Education and gender equality are two sides of the same coin. UNESCO works to break prejudice and stereotypes through its work in all its domains, such as education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. We highlight the accomplishments of women scientists, journalists and politicians, and acknowledge their invaluable contributions through our high-level conferences and programmes, such as the Joint Programme on Empowering Adolescent Girls and Women through Education, the Global Partnership for Girls’ Education and the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education. Participants and beneficiaries of all these programmes come from all corners of the world. The representation of women in decision-making levels has steadily improved in the last decade – from nine per cent in 2004 to 46 per cent in December 2016.

What practical steps has UNESCO taken under your leadership to ensure that girls reach second and even third level education in developing countries?

By leveraging strategic partnerships we have mobilised close to $30 million from public and private partners. It has been invested in programmes promoting girls’ and women’s education. In Senegal for example, close to 40,000 girls and women were reached using a combination of e-learning materials, educational TV programmes and mobile-based training. In Nepal, I met with rural women following literacy classes in community learning centres run by UNESCO, who shared their determination to improve their livelihoods and ensure that their daughters go to school. In Pakistan, we have launched programmes in some of the most remote districts and provinces to improve educational access and quality for girls. In Afghanistan, we run the country’s largest literacy programme, benefitting over 600,000 youth and adults, more than half of them women. Here, women beneficiaries told me how the programmes had helped them improve their children’s health, deal with shopkeepers at the market and manage money. Their request was for more classes and skills training. We are also stepping up action on combatting school-related gender-based violence, which is increasingly recognised as a major obstacle to fulfilling the right to education.

UNESCO is woefully under-funded. What have you done to ensure that its programmes can secure the necessary funds?

In spite of constant calls for special voluntary contributions to fill the gap created by severe budget cuts since late 2011, the financial shortfall has been a hindrance for all UNESCO’s programmes. This situation has also prompted a search for private sector funding. For instance the World Heritage Marine Programme has benefitted from funds from Jaeger-LeCoultre. We will continue to lobby for more funding and build new partnerships with the private sector going forward.

What is next for you after UNESCO?

This is an open question. There is an adage that UNESCO never leaves you. What I can assure you is that I shall continue to pursue causes that are among the gravest threats to peace today: youth radicalisation, violent extremism, cultural cleansing and the destruction of our cultural heritage. It takes a societal movement to change the narrative, combat impunity and unite around human rights and shared values. My personal and professional journey has always been motivated by the conviction that diplomacy and dialogue can overcome divides and promote mutual understanding. It may take patience and perseverance, but this is the only route to empowering young generations to take on the future as global citizens.