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Nurturing the democratic debate.  
Close of intense and productive General Conference at UNESCO

21-10-2005 6:30 pm The adoption of three standard-setting texts and the re-election of Koïchiro Matsuura as Director-General of UNESCO marked the 33rd session of UNESCO’s General Conference, which closed today. The texts adopted are: the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions; the International Convention Against Doping in Sport; and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. A day of reflection about human dignity, as well as two Ministerial Round Tables – one on Education for All (EFA), another on the basic sciences – and an exhibition about EFA, were also organized during the 33rd session.fin_conference_300.jpg Every two years the General Conference, UNESCO’s highest decision-making body, brings together representatives from all Member States (191, since Brunei Darussalam joined the Organization recently). Eight heads of state and more than 200 ministers1 were among the 3,700 participants of the session, held at UNESCO Headquarters from October 3 to 21.

The President of the General Conference, Musa Bin Jafaar Bin Hassan (Oman) hailed the spirit of cooperation that prevailed during the session. In his closing address, he stressed that there is no difference between individuals and that UNESCO has been sustained by this principle in the past decades, through all historic changes. He added: “This remains pertinent today and we are going to continue to ensure that UNESCO play its part in the agenda of the 21st century.” Welcoming the many resolutions adopted by the General Conference, he added: “The time has come for new ways to allow all states to work together.”

During the closing ceremony today, the Director-General highlighted the fact that “subjects on the agenda of this session were numerous, complex, and sensitive, requiring the constant exercise of a constructive spirit of dialogue, listening, and mutual respect. […] This General Conference will prove to have been a wellspring of inspiration and intellectual stimulation.” He further declared: “UNESCO can be viewed as a paradox: founded on universality, it expresses itself fully by recognizing the wealth of diversity. It serves culture by promoting and preserving the world’s cultures. It serves knowledge by disseminating its many forms.”

He continued: “Regarding education, our absolute priority, we want to promote quality education for all […]. We want education to allow those who receive it to learn to live, learn to understand the world and other people, and learn to live in harmony with our physical and natural environment. […] Through the dialogue between cultures, civilizations and religions that we foster through a great number of activities, we are safeguarding freedom, dignity and human rights.”

During the session, Mr Matsuura, who has served as Director-General since 1999, was re-elected to the post for the next four years. One hundred and fifty-one delegates out of 154 voted for his candidacy in a secret ballot on October 12. The General Conference also elected 29 new representatives to the 58-member Executive Board of UNESCO.

The General Conference adopted the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions2 by 148 votes, with two votes against and four abstentions. It also adopted, unanimously, the International Convention Against Doping in Sport3 the first legal instrument against doping to be both binding and universal in scope. The Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights4 was adopted by acclamation.

After producing a number of standard-setting instruments over recent years, the Director-General followed the wish expressed by many Member States that the Organization refrain, for the time being, from working on new texts and concentrate on promoting and implementing texts already adopted, at this and previous sessions of the General Conference.

During the 33rd session, Brunei Darussalam, the most recent newcomer on UNESCO’s roster of Member States, held its official flag-raising ceremony. The Director General on this occasion welcomed the arrival of UNESCO’s 191st Member State, which took effect on March 17 this year and further reinforced the Organization’s universality. He also hoped to be able to welcome Singapore into the Organization in the near future.

Eight heads of state or government participated in the General Conference. At the opening session on October 3, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka emphasized the importance of education, which she described as “central to human experience”. That same day, the President of Ghana, John Agyekum Kufuor, stressed that “even as we celebrate the incredible achievements under the leadership of the UN and its agencies, like UNESCO, we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go.”

On October 5, at a special session launching UNESCO’s 60th anniversary ceremonies, the presidents of Germany and Afghanistan evoked the theme of human dignity. President Horst Kohler stressed the importance of cultural diversity and President Hamid Karzai spoke of Afghanistan’s painful past.

On October 10, Ivo Miro Jović, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, took the floor pleading for better knowledge of each other’s cultures. The President of Tajikistan. He was followed by President Emomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan, who advocated inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue. Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, and Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal, on the following day focused on educational issues in their addresses.

Among notable events held during the General Conference were two high-level round table debates. On October 7 and 8, the Ministerial Round Tables on Education For All5 brought together 356 participants, including 94 education ministers and 10 deputy ministers.

The second round table – entitled The Basic Sciences: The Science Lever for Development6- took place on October 13 and 14. Some 50 ministers and policy-makers in charge of science stressed the need to build capacities in the basic sciences in Member States, “as the platform for knowledge-based development”, and to reinforce capacities in the information and communication technologies (ICT) in developing countries to reduce the digital divide.

The General Conference - in keeping with the dispositions of UNESCO’s Constitution that it determine the policies and the main lines of work of the Organization - reviewed all of UNESCO’s Major Programmes. The Preparation of the Draft Medium-Term Strategy 2008-2013 and of the Draft Programme and Budget for 2008-2009 were examined, as well as the Programme and Budget for 2006-2007, which sets out the following five priorities: basic Education For All; water and associated ecosystems; ethics of science and technology, with emphasis on bioethics; promotion of cultural diversity, with special emphasis on tangible and intangible heritage; empowering people through access to information and knowledge, with special emphasis on freedom of expression.

For 2006-2007, the General Conference adopted a budget of US$610 million - in keeping with the scenario proposed by the Director General – to which are to be added US$25 million in extra-budgetary voluntary funding to reinforce activities in priority areas. Education – “priority of priorities,” according to Mr Matsuura – received a budget of US$107 and will benefit from the lion’s share of the extra budgetary funding. The Natural Sciences sector is to receive close to US$56 million, and the Social and Human Sciences close to US$31 million. The Culture Programme was allocated US$50.5 million, and the Communication and Information Programme close to US$33 million.

Among the session’s many other decisions, those particularly noteworthy include: the creation of an International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa (CIEFFA) in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso); the drafting of guidelines on quality in cross-border higher education, in cooperation with the OECD. In the sciences, it proclaimed World Philosophy Day for the third Thursday of November (expanding the scope of UNESCO’s Philosophy Day, initiated in 2002). It also acknowledged the need to establish tsunami and other ocean-related hazards early warning systems in all oceans and seas as part of a global operational multi-purpose detection and multi-hazard warning system. The General Conference also recommended that the United Nations General Assembly proclaim 2008 International Year of Planet Earth and 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

Concerning culture, it decided to create a centre for safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage in Cuzco (Peru) and that UNESCO should be the main partner of the Universal Forum of Cultures in Monterey (Mexico) in 2007. The General Conference amended the statutes of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation to include mediation and conciliation. It also supported the idea of an African World Heritage Fund and many speakers called for UNESCO to increase its efforts for languages.

In the area of communication and information, the General Conference reiterated its support of the concept of building knowledge societies and the four principles on which they are founded: freedom of expression, quality education for all, universal access to information and knowledge, and respect of cultural and linguistic diversity. It also endorsed the principles of the declarations on “Assistance to Media in Conflict Areas and Countries in Transition” and “Media and Good Governance”, adopted by media professionals at World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Belgrade, in 2004 and Dakar, in 2005.

1 Among them 109 education ministers, 30 culture ministers, 16 foreign affairs ministers and 14 science ministers.
2 Cf. Press Release No.128
3. Cf. Press Release No.126
4 Cf. Press Release No.127
5 Cf. Press Release No.116
6 Cf. Press Release No.129

Photo © UNESCO/N. Burke

Source Press Release N°2005-130

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