Susannah Walden| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Gearing up for the last phase of the election process to determine the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 11th director-general, Lebanese candidate Vera El Khoury Lacoeuilhe said she’s busy and focused. “Sometimes I wish I had my [old] life back,” she told The Daily Star in a recent interview. She was speaking during a brief, jam-packed visit to her native Lebanon from her base in Paris, where the UNESCO head office is also located. “But absolutely, I want to win, because there are things that need to be done and I know I can make a difference.”
Khoury Lacoeuilhe is one of nine candidates on the short list to become the new executive head of the agency later this year. UNESCO was founded in the wake of World War II to promote peace and universal respect for human rights through cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs.
The director-general position is unofficially slated to be filled by a candidate from the Middle East, as the only region that has never been represented in the post. Iraq, Egypt, Qatar and Lebanon have fielded candidates, joining those from France, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, China and Vietnam.
The agency has, however, recently been a theater for political disputes tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, causing some commentators to contend that electing a head from an Arab nation would intensify, rather than ease, tensions.
Khoury Lacoeuilhe was clear-eyed and straightforward in addressing this question, pointing out that the characteristics of the candidate are more important than the country they come from. “It’s the personality [that matters], and the organization needs someone who knows it enough to bring back credibility and to bring back neutrality. It has nothing to do with the country [you’re from],” she said, without hesitation. “The way to deal with disagreement is to ensure that you have a person who has a record in UNESCO of being fair, of acting with integrity, acting according to principles.”
But she acknowledges that despite the transparency of the election and the thorough vetting of all candidates, it is not easy to depoliticize the process. “All subjects are political. … It’s naive to think otherwise,” she said. “I’m hoping they’re going to base their choice on competence when they elect, because this is not the only criteria, and they know it. There are political considerations unfortunately, even economic considerations, that get into the picture. So member states want achievement, they want results, so they should select a leader who can get this done.”
She continued: “I don’t like these pre-electoral promises, saying, ‘I’m going to prevent any political conversation in UNESCO.’ I want to be honest and transparent. … I’m not pretending that I’m coming with a magic stick and that because I am there everything is going to become perfect immediately … but my only agenda is UNESCO’s interest and the member states’ interests. And this is what distinguishes me [from other candidates].”
In the public interviews held at the end of April by the UNESCO Executive Board, Khoury Lacoeuilhe was the only candidate to propose a practical safeguard for flagging politically charged issues early on – something she said was necessary to maintain focus on “common dominators that we can build on.”
“This is why I proposed … to have an alert system [for] all the members of the secretariat, so they can alert me about anything that could become difficult, so that I can deal with it as early as possible and start dialogue as early as possible.
“I am not going to say that I’m going to change your political views … I’m just asking you to accept to put them on the side so we can deal with what is positive, what we can bring and achieve together. And this I can do. I know the subjects better than any other candidate. … I know the member states better than any other candidate, because I’ve negotiated and worked with them on all these subjects and I think I can bring them together to unite on things we have in common.”
There is no doubt that she is qualified. A diplomat with over 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy and international relations, and a member of the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. Independent Team of Advisors, her knowledge of the U.N. system is grounded in years of practice.
Khoury Lacoeuilhe’s commitment to the relevance and mandate of UNESCO is clear as well. She said she recognizes the organization’s imperfections, but considers it well-placed to support the U.N. development goals in a time of great change. Her vision statement, entitled “Our Children,” focuses on the next generation as the aforementioned “common denominator” – a great source of unity in multilateral cooperation, in her view.
In light of this, Khoury Lacoeuilhe emphasizes the need to modernize the agency and integrate an awareness of the technological revolution into its inner workings. “The mandate [of UNESCO] is extremely relevant, and it is doing things now that are extremely successful. They add value but [the organization] has been going through lots of difficulties and it needs to become more agile, more lean, more flexible and it needs to adapt, to change. I mean look at the world we’re living in. Change is absolutely exponential. … There is no way the organization can survive if it doesn’t take this into consideration,” she said.
“I know the potential [of UNESCO] and I know what needs to be done to modernize, and in fact, this is what is needed,” she went on. “And they’re aware of it. There’s brilliant staff over there. … I will not be alone. What I will bring is vision, a new mindset. [I will] empower the staff and make them understand they will be held accountable, attract the brightest people to work with us and trust them to do their work. Alone I will do nothing; nobody can achieve anything alone.”