‘Striking the right balance between modernity and heritage is complicated. We try to find the balance’

Irina Bokova
In this Idea Exchange, Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General, speaks about conservation in times of globalisation, of freedom of speech and expression and UNESCO's adjustment in the new world order. This session was moderated by Senior Assistant Editor Amulya Gopalakrishnan

Amulya Gopalakrishnan: What does it tangibly mean when a site from a particular nation has been chosen to be on the UNESCO world heritage list? How does it help?

Irina Bokova: The most important part is the inscription of the UNESCO world heritage site. Competition is growing and I am often asked that since we will be reaching 1,000 sites soon, isn't it time to stop inscribing? I always say no. That's the wrong approach. What is more important from our point of view is preserving heritage and passing it down to future generations. It's not the inscription which is the most important part, although it is the most visible part. How can we protect heritage, how can we inscribe it into development policies? Those are the most important questions. We see that heritage and culture are subjected to diverse pressures—the pressure of modernisation, of creating new infrastructure, of developmental policies, of urbanisation. There is practically not a single site which is not subjected to these pressures. I don't think protecting heritage should be seen as an obstacle to any of this if there are correct policies to include this in local developmental plans. A balance can be found between this drive for modernity and protection of heritage. So, from our point of view, it is important to preserve the authenticity of the respective sites. For natural sites, we have our network of biosphere reserves, and we value the efforts of local government authorities to protect biodiversity. In many parts of the world, we see natural disasters, we are devastated when conflicts destroy monuments that have stood for many years. We find this absolutely unacceptable: whatever the conflict or social strife, monuments have to be preserved. Urbanisation and modernity also destroy these sites. Striking the right balance is a complicated issue. We really try to find the right balance.

Amulya Gopalakrishnan: What obligation does it place on the state?

Irina Bokova: There is a convention, there is an internationally binding legal instrument. There are operational guidelines, there are concrete provisions that legally bind state parties to the convention to protect and preserve monuments. You cannot destroy it, you cannot introduce changes that affect the authenticity or the respective criteria for which a monument has been inscribed. There are cases where you could reconstruct but that is always with a dialogue with experts and the World Heritage Centre.

Amulya Gopalakrishnan: How do you extend protection to intangible art forms?

Irina Bokova: Intangible heritage has the opposite logic to inscribing. If in the world heritage we see the outstanding value to be the main criteria, in intangible heritage it may just be important to the local community. This is the meaning of preserving intangible heritage. Usually intangible heritage is not of universal value, its value lies with the local community or separate groups of people in different countries, and that is what makes it so precious. By protecting intangible heritage we try to provide answers to the pressures of globalisation. I have visited so many small communities and sites and people who practice intangible heritage in Africa, Latin America, etc. We see how proud these people are and how important their heritage is to them. You give them reassurance in this globalised world where there are no boundaries which protect these people.

Dilip Bobb: The previous government in Uttar Pradesh wanted to initiate a major project surrounding the Taj Mahal. Do they have to take your permission for that?

Irina Bokova: I don't recollect us having problems there or if there were problems, they were solved, otherwise the Taj would not have remained on the world heritage list.

YP Rajesh: In the context of freedom of speech and expression, what do you make of the debate in India and some other countries to clamp down on social media which has emerged as the latest forum for people to express themselves around the world?

Irina Bokova: UNESCO is entrusted with the mandate to work on freedom of expression, and the freedom of the media and journalists and supporting overall rights of communication and information. We are based on the international covenant on several political rights like Article 19. Now, we see that with the advent of new technologies, there are totally new and unexpected, lesser analysed tendencies that appear. We started a very interesting and frank debate about new media and the right to information two years ago. Every year we celebrate World Press Freedom day on May 3 and every year we give one prize to a journalist who has been distinguished by what he or she does for the freedom of expression. This prize bears the name of Columbian journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza, who was murdered by drug traffickers in Columbia more than 20 years ago. I believe that professional journalism is not just publishing information on websites, it is much more than that. Investigative information is important, the ethics of journalism are important, striving, aspiring for the truth which, I believe guides professional journalism, will remain very important. But with new areas like Wikileaks or the Murdoch group scandal, there are new topics for debate. Security versus journalism and freedom or the ethics of investigative journalism versus civilian rights— these, together with the Internet, pose new interesting problems to be debated. We try to involve professional associations or journalists in this debate, because I believe there are open questions which haven't found their answers.

Abantika Ghosh: UNESCO as an organisation is unique because the US walked out of it long ago. Is that a plus or a minus?

Irina Bokova: The US has not left the organisation, let me be clear on that. There were two laws adopted at the beginning of the nineties which provided that if Palestine became a member of an international organisation, automatically the US would suspend funding. That is what happened: the US administration was obliged to stop funding. I would not make the comparison between what happened now and what happened 30 years ago when the US and the UK left the organisation and left it with the very clear understanding that it did not serve their interests. Now it is very different. We expect that now, after the elections they will be much more engaged with UNESCO.

Rahul Tripathi: Many countries have shut their doors to collaborating with other countries on research despite being UNESCO members. Does that concern you?

Irina Bokova: Well, here is a good example: UNESCO established a framework of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian scientists. It is an organisation called IPSO—Israeli and Palestinian Scientific Organisation—which of course has its ups and downs. It was created in 2005. It started with good cooperation then but because of political tensions on the ground, it was suspended. But just a month ago, I invited the counsel and administration of IPSO where Israelis, including Nobel Prize winners, and Palestinian scientists sat together and we once again held discussions on how to move on. We want to move forward. Another example is the so-called Sesame project which is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. It is a branch of the CERN institute of Geneva, created also by UNESCO long time ago and then separated. It is in Jordan, some 100 km from Amman, the capital, where scientists from Israel, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey are working together. It is perhaps the only place where Israel and Iran are sitting together, working and cooperating. So my response is yes, we do promote and encourage research.

Rakesh Sinha: The Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were ravaged, and there were reports of antiquities being looted in Iraq and in Egypt. What does UNESCO do in a situation of conflict when there is potential threat to national treasures?

I know that my predecessor at that time, Koichiro Matsuura, had sent a special mission to Afghanistan to try to and prevent the desecration but unfortunately we could not stop it. Every time there is destruction in war, we not only try to ring the bell and mobilise the international community but we try to find the best ways of influencing the parties. In the case of Mali, (the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud was desecrated by the Ansar Dine group this May), we unfortunately saw a lot of destruction even though we did ring the alarm bells.

Seema chishti: There is a lot of talk in the UN, particularly in reference to the Security Council, that we need to adapt to the new world order. How does a body like UNESCO deal with these issues? Are there issues about it being too Euro-centric or having a different world view? Do you think you have to make some adjustment for the new world order?

Irina Bokova: I always say UNESCO is the best part of the UN because we are not dealing with the hardcore security issues. We are on the soft side. We promote education and sustainable development and science and culture. But UNESCO also shows this big shift in world politics. This changed world order we are speaking about, it reflects in our programmes. We are bringing in more diverse representation from different cultures. Nowadays I would say there is money everywhere in the world. It is about how we perceive the promotion of certain values and working on cultural diversity. The notion of cultural diversity already, I think, is a huge contribution of UNESCO in a multi-polar world.

Dilip Bobb: How has the global economic crisis and funding affected your priorities?

Irina Bokova: I think that the world crisis affected not only us, but globally affected the development agenda. We see shifts in this. On one side some traditional donors of extra budgetary resources to UNESCO have decreased their funding. I am talking mainly about European countries. I say with a lot of regret that some of the European donors, because of the crises, not only decreased but shifted their priorities. A lot of them have pulled out of education, which is a huge mistake. On the other side, we have new donors. I have signed agreements for extra budgetary resources from countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and China. We have stepped up our cooperation with Brazil. We will start working with self-benefiting funds in Africa—Angola will be our first country. But it is not just a matter of financial resources. Many of these countries, your own country is a good example, have resources. What we can bring is our expertise. It is about capacity building. In Africa, we have helped more than 20 countries to establish their scientific policies which never existed before. It is mainly institution building and capacity building which is at stake nowadays in the world.

Transcribed by Pritha Chatterjee & Apurva

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