Introduction for Dr. Irina Bokova

Keynote Speaker to “A New Humanism for the 21st Century”

London, 5th September, 2016


Mr. Chairman,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to express first my warmest gratitude to His Excellency Wafik Moustafa, Chairman of the British-Arab Network, and to the other co-hosts of our reunion, for asking me to introduce to you an outstanding personality of our times, Ms. Irina BOKOVA, General Director of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. It is, indeed, a privilege as well as a pleasure for me to be associated with a most deserving candidate to the high responsibility of the General Secretary of the United Nations. The fact that this candidate is both a Bulgarian official, an illustrious international leader, and a woman, is for me a triple reason to be proud of having been elected to express publicly my firm conviction that Dr. Bokova is a perfect choice for the highest position in the international diplomacy of the United Nations.

I will not dwell on biographic details, as I am convinced that this distinguished auditory is familiar with the basic facts, such as that Dr. Bokova graduated the First English Language School, and then the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, two renowned schools for diplomats. At the beginning of 1989, she was hosted by the University of Maryland, in Washington, D.C., on a Program on US foreign policy decision-making process, and in 1992 – 1994 she was a NATO fellow, Program for Central and Eastern Europe on democratic institutions. In 1999, Dr. Bokova was hosted at Harvard University, fellow of an Executive Program in Leadership and Economic Development of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

All these years, Ms Bokova worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, starting in 1977 as a third secretary and eventually becoming acting minister (ad interim) between November 13, 1996 – February 13, 1997. Mrs. Bokova was two terms member of the Bulgarian Parliament - the first term in 1990 - with the Bulgarian Socialist Party list, and the second, during the 39th National Assembly in 2001-2005, with the Coalition for Bulgaria list.

But diplomacy, not politics, was her true calling. In 2005, she became Ambassador of Bulgaria to France and Unesco; as Personal Representative of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), and as deputy Chairperson, of the Group of Francophone Countries at UNESCO, I had the privilege of first meeting her.

On 15 November 2009, Ms Bokova took office as the tenth Director-General of UNESCO, marking two firsts. She is both the first female and the first Eastern European to head the agency. If, as I hope, she is elected General Secretary of the UN, she will be again the first woman and the first eastern European to head the United Nations.

At UNESCO, Director-General Bokova advocates for gender equality, improved education and preventing funding for terrorism, especially by enforcing the protection of intellectual goods. A firm opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, Director-General Bokova has led UNESCO's activities on Holocaust remembrance.

Both as president of the Bucharest University and as president of Romania, I had the opportunity to evaluate and respect the specific qualities of endurance, boldness and grace that our colleagues women can put to use in leader positions, their talent in diplomacy, the specific alloy of the strength of the steel and the ductility of the silver and gold that only women can display in the public realm.  The expression “a steel hand in a velvet glove” may be worn out by use, but is perfectly adequate to express this quality which Dr. Bokova has brilliantly proven - as an ambassador, a Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, and above all in her current capacity of General Secretary of Unesco.

For she was confronted with huge and dramatic crises. One of them - recurrent in a way at Unesco – is about Unesco founding. Starting from 2011, when a majority of the member states voted to make Palestine a full Unesco member, against the wishes of America and Israel. It triggered a US law that automatically cut off funding for bodies that recognized a Palestinian state. A third of the organization’s budget disappeared overnight, Dr. Bokova had no responsibility whatsoever in the vote. But she was left to deal with its consequences. Her handling of this crisis is held up by myself, as well as by her so many supporters, as a brilliant evidence that she is ready for managing other crises, this time at the UN’s level.

The second crisis is much more striking, visible, and dramatic. As everybody knows now, the dire conflicts in the Middle East provoked not only thousands and thousands of tragic losses of human lives, but also a tremendous wave of destruction of historic monuments and artworks. First the Taliban in Afghanistan, then the Daesh jihadists all over Syria deliberately tore down, broke, and destroyed monuments they hate as idols. When Isis took over the city of Palmyra in May last year, they demolished parts of the ruins, including the Temple of Bel, probably the most beautiful symbol of all of Syria. They also smashed up and looted the museum, and beheaded the 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who had devoted his life to Palmyra; they hung his body from a lamp-post with a sign accusing him of managing a collection of “idols”.

Chairperson of the Second Extraordinary Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (February 2008, Sofia), Irina Bokova was well prepared to start and direct a just war in defense of the world cultural heritage, in Syria and in the whole world. She coined the concept of “cultural cleansing” to describe the action of destroying and uproot a cultural heritage: as she said recently, “You destroy the temples, you take away what they have, you enslave half of them, you push them somewhere else. It’s really more than ethnic cleansing, because you deprive them of their identity. You just want to destroy them totally, you don’t want anything from their culture left there for humanity. It’s as if they never existed.”

Her biggest success came with three paragraphs inserted into UN resolution 2199. This resolution aimed to cut off the jihadists’ oil and kidnapping revenues. Bokova successfully made the case for the inclusion of trafficked antiquities, too. “The challenge was to the importance of heritage and the need to protect it,” she says. “They put the responsibility on us and Interpol to create this platform to fight against the trafficking.”

The deliberate attack of historic monuments is classed as a war crime by the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court, the Rome Statute. But for the first time in history, a UN resolution made a connection between culture and global security. Thirty-six countries have now taken steps to crack down on trafficking in antiquities, but preventing damage to the sites themselves is far more difficult. The first trial for alleged cultural destruction, of the jihadist police chief of Timbuktu, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, will begin in the Hague later this year. As a feature article from The Guardian wrote recently Irina Bokova: the woman standing between Isis and world heritage.

Bokova has always been dynamic when it comes to solving complex problems. Challenged by the situation of intentional destruction, she took action, with a unique commitment and dynamism. If she is elected as General Secretary, she will prove the same outstanding virtues we praise in her action at the Unesco. But for me – as well as, in fact, for Dr. Bokova herself - the fact that she is coming from an ex-satellite state of the Soviet Union country gives her a kind of wisdom that we seldom find in politicians that had only the experience of the free world. Because she knows – as indeed I do myself - both worlds and both types of society, she can understand better the whole of the UN. And she can reach out to everybody to try to find solutions, and bring together the most incompatible political actors. Ms. Bokova declared herself most proud if the future General Secretary will come from Eastern Europe, and specifically from the south-eastern fringe of the continent. As I well know myself, Romania as well as Bulgaria have always been viewed as marginal and caught between great powers. If she gets the job it will mark the final integration of this overlooked corner of the world – into the EU, into Nato, into democracy – after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For all these reasons, Ladies and Gentlemen, do support and praise Ms. Irina BOKOVA as the future General Secretary of the United Nations.