The First Lady of the United States of America marks the U.S. Return to Unesco with an Address to the General Conference“We raise our flag to join the flags of 189 UNESCO Member States in seeking the very best of our human hopes for liberty, dignity and peace,” said Mrs Laura Bush, First Lady of the United States of America, as the flag of her country was raised this afternoon on the grounds of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris.
Literacy. Nearly 900 million adults are illiterate today, two thirds of them women. “To prevent another generation of adult illiteracy, we must make a major commitment to primary education for all children, especially girls.” Mrs Bush praised UNESCO's Education For All initiative which “closely mirrors the goals of my husband's ‘No child left behind’ initiative which was passed by the United States Congress two years ago […] Our close collaboration on these education initiatives will help both the United States and UNESCO achieve our goals. Together, we can bring learning and literacy to children across the world – building the best possible foundation for freedom and peace.” One of the places where this transformation is taking place is Afghanistan, said Mrs Bush. “Nearly four million children are in school – including one million girls” where three years ago 92 percent of girls were not allowed to attend school because of the Taleban. Mrs Bush announced that the United States Government was working to re-establish the American School in Kabul beginning next fall and towards the development of a teacher training institute.
Introducing her moments before, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said: “Today a new nation joins forces with us, bringing vast intellectual and cultural resources along with partnership and good will. A great nation so diverse that each of us can see himself in it; America holds up a mirror to the world. This nation, a founding member of UNESCO, is now returning with energy, talent and creativity to work with us towards our common goals; education for all, cultural preservation, sharing widely the benefits of scientific progress.”
The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 citing concerns over mismanagement.
Addressing earlier this afternoon the delegates attending the 32nd Session of UNESCO’s General Conference, Mrs Bush said that “We believe in working with the nations of the world to promote values shared by people throughout the world.”
“We have much to offer and we have much to learn (and) given the many challenges in our world today, our work is more urgent and more important than at any time in UNESCO's history.”
“No nation, we have learned, is immune,” from terrorism, said Mrs Bush. “My own country was a target on a terrible September morning two years ago. Since that day, acts of terror have robbed innocents of their lives in Jakarta, Pakistan and Riyadh. And last month, terrorists attacked the very symbol of the civilized world, striking the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad; killing those who had come to deliver humanitarian help and hope to the people of Iraq.”
“As a former public school teacher and librarian,” said Mrs Bush “I believe education is our most urgent priority, and should have the first and highest call on our time and our resources.” Education, she added, “is the birthright of every human being – all the world's sons and all the world’s daughters.”
Mrs Bush - who earlier this year was designated UNESCO Honorary Ambassador for the UN Literacy Decade (2003-2012) by the Director-General - then focussed on four key areas requiring urgent attention.
Quality education – which Mrs Bush defined as “education based on truth and tolerance”. Pointing to work that has been conducted in the Balkans and in Iraq, Mrs Bush praised UNESCO for its “wonderful work in this area”.
Post-conflict education. This concerns the reconstruction of education systems in countries affected by war and civil strife. “UNESCO has done valuable work rebuilding education in Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia and your collaboration can help change the future children in Afghanistan and Iraq […] The presence of a peaceful, stable Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a powerful beacon for freedom – an example of hope – in that vital region. […] More than 80 percent of Iraq's primary and secondary schools and all but two universities have now reopened […] Next month,” she added “five million students will receive their own text books free of Ba'athist propaganda thanks to a UNESCO programme that reviews text books and removes language of hate and division.”
HIV/AIDS education. “I'm proud that President Bush has made a massive commitment – US$15 billion – to fight this humanitarian crisis. This is the largest single commitment of funds in history for an international public health initiative on a specific disease – and I'm very proud of my husband's leadership to help the children of the world. In collaboration with UNESCO, the United States will work to build more centres of care and education for those afflicted with HIV and AIDS.”
“My fellow delegates" Mrs Bush concluded, " I challenge us all to work together to make this a Decade of Literacy and a Century of Liberty. Literacy and Liberty are natural allies, and they are the core mission of UNESCO. Before us are both opportunities and obligations. We must educate every person – in reading, writing and their basic human rights. We must preserve the cultural heritage of our past, and illuminate a future of scientific advance and discovery with careful ethics and a reverence for the dignity of life.”
Photo © A. Wheeler/UNESCO: Mrs Laura Bush