The 2009 Election of the UNESCO Director General

Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.

Edmund Burke

As we focus on the 2013 election of the UNESCO Director General it may be interesting to review the events in the election four years ago. Kōichirō Matsuura, the then current Director General was not running and nine people were nominated to replace him. The early leader was Farouk Hosni who had served for the previous 22 years as the Egyptian Minister of Culture under Hosni Mubarak.  However, his candidacy proved very controversial. The other candidates were:

  • Ina Marciulonyte, Lithuania 
  • Irina Bukova, Bulgaria 
  • Mohammed Bedjaoui, Algerian nominated by Cambodia 
  • Sospeter Muhongo, Tanzania 
  • Noreini Tidjani-Serpos, Benin 
  • Alexander Yakovenko, Russia 
  • Ivone Baki, Ecuador 
  • Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austria/Colombia

The Executive Board voted five times until Irina Bokova was finally elected. In the first three ballots, Hosni led. As the voting took place, some candidates dropped out  On the fourth ballot, Irina Bokova tied Farouk Hosni, each with 29 votes. In the final vote, Bokova won 31 to 27.

There is an exceptional source of information on this election. Among the hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by Bradley Manning to Wikileaks, there were many dealing with UNESCO. They span a period from 2003 to 2010, and thus include many dealing specifically with the 2009 UNESCO Director General election. Among those are cables from U.S. embassies in many countries reporting on diplomatic contacts relative to the election, as well as reporting from the Permanent U.S. delegation to UNESCO.

The most relevant of these is the final reporting cable: “BOKOVA WINS JOB AS UNESCO DIRECTOR-GENERAL“. It was identified as “for limited official use” by the U.S. government but as it is now freely available on the Internet, I will quote its entire text:

¶1. (SBU) Summary: Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova defeated Egyptian Farouk Hosni to become UNESCO’s first woman Director-General in a 31-27 vote in the final round of voting held on September 22. The defeat was a major shock to Egypt, given President Mubarak’s personal efforts to ensure a Hosni victory. Bokova’s election must be confirmed at UNESCO’s General Conference next month before she takes over from Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura to lead the Organization on November 15. End Summary.


¶2. (SBU) With a tie vote 29-29 the day before, tensions were high and hopes to defeat Hosni were flagging as delegates went into the fifth and final round of voting. Given the secret ballot, efforts to determine who was voting for whom were difficult, if not impossible. Ina Marciulionyte, the Lithuanian candidate who had dropped out of the D-G race earlier, said that at least eight delegates had assured her that she had received their votes, yet she only received four votes when the ballots were counted. Other countries, attempting to save diplomatic face, played both sides, literally keeping at arms’ length from anti-Hosni forces in public, promising their votes to Egypt, but secretly assuring the U.S. that their votes would go to Bokova.


¶3. (SBU) Before the vote, Egypt’s Ambassador to France, Kamal Hassan, assured the U.S. Representative that Egypt would be magnanimous in victory and would seek to include the U.S. in the administration of UNESCO. The final result must have been a shock, yet immediately following the vote, the Egyptian ambassador, Shadia Kenawy, warmly congratulated Bokova, following Bokova’s gracious acknowledgement of Hosni’s efforts during what had turned into a bitter campaign.


¶4. (SBU) The Egyptians had been campaigning hard for months at the highest levels, with Egypt’s President Mubarak personally contacting his counterparts, urging them to support Hosni. Over the past year and half, Hosni had travelled extensively, meeting world leaders and managing to get the support of the Arab League, the African Union and the Islamic Conference, despite some questionable tactics. Several delegates were threatened that Egypt would insist to their capitals that they be recalled or that others be sent to cast ballots if they refused to vote for Hosni. It has been noted in the press that Madagascar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Lebanon all withdrew their representatives prior to the final vote, possibly under Egyptian pressure. Egypt also spent freely, hiring French and Senegalese public relations firms to UNESCO to lobby delegates.


¶5. (SBU) In this regard, Egypt may have overplayed its hand as allegations of bribes offered to various delegations surfaced in the days before the elections. One member of the U.S. delegation witnessed an unfamiliar man carrying a large amount of cash in an envelope at UNESCO headquarters. Several Member States complained to the Director-General and to the Executive Board Chairman about an atmosphere of intimidation at UNESCO and not feeling comfortable talking to their colleagues without outside lobbyists immediately questioning them in the corridors at UNESCO. Elizabeth Longworth (protect), Matsuura’s Chief of Staff, confirmed to the U.S. Representative that on September 21, the D-G banned an individual from further entry to UNESCO because of numerous allegations of unethical conduct by the individual related to the election.


¶6. (SBU) The other key players in the pro-Hosni forces were Brazil and India, which attempted, unsuccessfully, to paint the race as a North-South struggle. The Indian ambassador to UNESCO, Bhaswati Mukherjee, an increasingly divisive figure in the Organization, made no secret of Hosni’s alleged offer to her to become Deputy Director-General should he win. Mukherjee’s aggressive and abrasive style, which she demonstrated the morning of the final vote against Jamaica during a debate on climate change, apparently back-fired when Fiji dropped its support of Hosni in anger out of the lack of respect shown to a fellow small island developing state.


¶7. (SBU) While it would be easy for Egypt to blame the U.S. for its defeat, some of the key people responsible for turning around the vote were from small island states, including Jamaica and, in particular, the delegate from St. Lucia. An expatriate Lebanese diplomat with more than ten years at UNESCO, Ms. Lacoeuilhe made an enormous contribution to Bokova’s victory, after having been enlisted to assist with the campaign of Ivonne Baki. Following  Baki’s withdrawal from the race, Ms. Lacoeuilhe worked until the last minute, and is responsible for having shifted key votes, including St. Vincent and Jamaica, to Bokova. With the exception of  Cuba, we believe that all Caribbean states voted for Bokova. Portugal’s Deputy Permanent Representative Antonio Cotrim also played an important role in stopping Hosni from winning the election. 


¶8. (SBU) Within Africa, we believe that South Africa, Ethiopia, Benin, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia did not vote for Hosni. In Latin America, despite Brazil’s best efforts, only Chile and possibly El Salvador voted for Hosni. In Asia, several Muslim countries were clearly in the Hosni camp. However, just before the final vote, China signaled to the U.S. Representative that, wary of the combined influence of India in a Hosni administration, it decided to vote for Bokova. (Note: The Chinese ambassador was jubilant after the result and said to the U.S. Representative that “this victory represented a successful partnership between the United States and China in support of good governance in the international system. In the first rounds we voted in support of geo-political obligations. In the final round, we voted in support of the integrity of this Organization.” End note.)


¶9. (SBU) With Bokova’s election by UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board, her name now goes forward to UNESCO’s General Conference, which begins meeting in early October. The full General Conference, all 193 Member States, will then confirm the election with an “up or down” vote. If the General Conference were to reject Bokova, the Executive Board would have to reconvene and select a new candidate within 24 hours. Given the Board’s definitive rejection of Hosni, it is highly improbable that he would be nominated again.


¶10. (U) Age 57. Born in Sofia on July 12, 1952, Irina Gueorguieva Bokova is the Ambassador of Bulgaria to France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO since 2005. A career diplomat, she studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland (USA). Her fields of interest include European integration issues and women’s equality. From 1982-84, she worked on political and judicial affairs at Bulgaria’s U.N Mission in New York. She served as Deputy Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs (1995-97), and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1996-97). In 1996, she made an unsuccessful attempt to become Vice President of Bulgaria. She advocated her country’s membership in NATO and the European Union. Bokova’s father, Georgi Bokov, was part of the inner circle of the former Soviet bloc nation’s Communist Party leadership for several years. He was also editor-in-chief of the main party newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo. Her brother, Filip Bokov, is also a diplomat. He had been a political advisor to current President Georgi Parvanov and former Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev. Last year he was appointed as Bulgaria’s ambassador to Slovenia. Bokova is fluent in English, Russian, Spanish and French. Her children are currently studying and living in the U.S.
(sources: UNESCO and press articles).

About the Author

John Daly

John Daly is the former director of the USAID Office of Research and instructor at George Washington University on UNESCO. His professional background is in promoting the capacity for science and technology in developing nations, especially the applications of information and communications technology. He served as the acting Work Program Administrator of infoDev, and has been a consultant with the RAND Corporation, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and on the Research and Training Network of the Development Gateway. He served as Vice President of Americans for UNESCO from 2005-2012.

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