The General Conference, UNESCO’s supreme ruling body, brings together every two years representatives of its 193 Member States. More than 3,000 participants – including eight Heads of State and government and some 260 ministers and deputy ministers – attended the session, held at UNESCO Headquarters from 6 to 23 October and presided by Davidson Hepburn (Bahamas).
At the start of the Conference, Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General whose mandate ends on 15 November, looked back at the ten years he spent at the head of UNESCO and at the reforms he launched. “By mobilizing a critical mass of expertise and resources behind a limited number of priority programmes, UNESCO has reinforced both its impact and its credibility. Today, the world knows what UNESCO stands for. Our voice is heard, and it is listened to.” On 22 October, the General Conference paid an official tribute to Mr Matsuura, in the presence of, Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, praising “his bold efforts to modernize UNESCO, despite severe budget constraints.” In his closing speech, the Director-General noted that the General Conference had been “placed under the double banner of consolidation and openness to the challenges of the future” and it had “proven itself as a true forum for reflection and exchange.”
On 15 October, the General Conference elected Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) as Director-General of the Organization to replace Mr Matsuura. Designated by the Executive Board on 22 September, Ms Bokova is the first woman and the first representative of Eastern Europe to be named to the post. At her investiture on 23 October, she expressed pride at this, adding: “My accession to this high office gives confidence to all women wherever they may be. It is a signal that they must have access to knowledge and power so that they may bring their contribution to society and take part in running world affairs.” She also stated her intention to spread the message whereby gender equality was indispensable for development.
Ms Bokova also declared: “East, west, north, south: I will endeavour to build numerous bridges between these parts, all involved in the process of globalization. Globalization calls for watchfulness because - while it liberates and helps millions get out of poverty and destitution - it also risks reducing our world of rich diversity into uniformity.”
The incoming Director-General spoke of the “new humanism” she intends to promote and said: “Cultural diversity and inter-cultural dialogue contribute to the emergence of a new humanism that reconciles the global and the local, and teaches us anew how to build the world. […] For me, humanism means aspiring to peace, democracy, justice and human rights. For me, humanism means aspiring to tolerance, knowledge and cultural diversity. It is rooted in ethics and in social and economic responsibility. It comes into its own by extending assistance to the most vulnerable. It is at the heart of the commitment to struggle to face our greatest common challenges, particularly respect for the environment.” She thanked the outgoing Director-General for his reforms and pledged to pursue them.
During the 35th session, the Faroe Islands became an Associate Member of UNESCO. With 193 Member States and seven Associate Member States, UNESCO’s membership now stands at 200.
The General Conference reviewed all of UNESCO’s programmes, revised the Medium-Term Strategy (2008-2013) and adopted the programme and budget for 2010-2011, in keeping with the role assigned to it by UNESCO’s Constitution: “to determine the policies and the main lines of work” of the Organization,. For the coming Biennium, the General Conference adopted the Director-General’s proposal of a US$653 million budget, which represents a nominal increase of 3.5%. With US$118.5, education remains the top priority.
Among the numerous decisions taken during the session, UNESCO will notably give priority in education to literacy, teachers and technical and vocational skills development. Additional funding will be allocated to some 20 countries farthest from achieving the goal of Education For All, , mainly in Africa. Educational centres will be built in Asia. In science (US$59 million), the General Conference decided to reinforce the activities of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), whose responsibilities include the global tsunami warning systems, and those of the Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB). It decided to create several centres on water resources, on training in biomics and space technologies for cultural and natural heritage. In the social and human sciences (nearly US$30 million), the Conference asked for an examination of the advisability of preparing a draft universal declaration of ethical principles in relation to climate change. It approved the establishment, in Cape Verde, of a West Africa institute for international research on regional integration and social transformations.
In the field of culture (US$53 million), the Conference set two priorities: Protecting, safeguarding and managing the tangible and intangible heritage, and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions, languages and multilingualism, and the dialogue of cultures. It asked countries to participate in the celebration of the International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures (2010). The creation of several centres devoted to cultural heritage under UNESCO’s aegis was also approved.
The General Conference asked the Communication and Information sector (US$33 million) to pursue its work in defence of press freedom. Member States reiterated their commitment to the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Memory of the World programme for the preservation of documentary archives.
Qatar’s Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development and UNESCO Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education,Participants took part in the General Conference alongside eight heads of state and government: Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia; Filip Vujanovic, President of Montenegro; Abdullah Gül, President of the Republic of Turkey; James A. Michel, President of the Seychelles; Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, Prime Minister of Bahrain; Sheikh Amani Abeid Karume, President of Zanzibar (United Republic of Tanzania); Ismael Omar Guelleh, President of Djibouti; and Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal. Michaëlle Jean, Governor-General of Canada, spoke on 5 October to a special session of the Executive Board and inaugurated the inter-sectoral exhibition “Cultures and Developments” organized at UNESCO for the duration of the General Conference.
As he closed the General Conference, the President of the 35th session, Davidson Hepburn, stressed that the time for action had come. He expressed faith in the future of UNESCO and in Ms Bokova’s commitment and competence to lead the Organization. But, he recalled “We must believe that in all our endeavours we need partners. UNESCO cannot achieve what it has to do alone.”