PARIS - In the modernist headquarters of UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency on the Left Bank in Paris, more than a few diplomats wonder if the organization has a future.
The agency, founded in the ashes of World War II to protect the common cultural inheritance of humanity, elected a new head on Friday. But Thursday’s sudden announcement that the United States was quitting over anti-Israel bias means the next director-general will inherit a body in turmoil, with huge questions over its funding and mission.
All the candidates running to head UNESCO vowed grass-roots reforms and efforts to de-politicize the institution.
A former French culture minister, Audrey Azoulay, narrowly beat Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in the final 30-28 vote on Friday. The outcome was a blow for Arab states that have long wanted to lead the body. UNESCO has had European, Asian, African and American chiefs, but never one from an Arab country.
“In a time of crisis, we need more than ever to get involved (and) work to strengthen the organization,” Azoulay, a career civil servant, said after her election.
During her tenure of just over a year as culture minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande, Azoulay secured a budget increase for her ministry after years of deep cuts.
Her tenure was also marked by the passage of a “creation and heritage” law aimed at ensuring artistic freedom and protecting France’s myriad historic sites, the culmination of years of efforts.
Azoulay was born in Paris in 1972 into a Moroccan Jewish family that gave pride of place to books and debate.
Her father is Andre Azoulay, a banker and adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI — as he was to the king’s father, Hassan II. Her mother is the writer Katia Brami.
She spent time at France’s Court of Audits and several years in media departments at the Culture Ministry before joining the guardian of the French film industry, the National Cinema Centre (CNC), as financial director in 2006. By 2011 she had become deputy director at the CNC, which regulates the industry and doles out subsidies for French productions.
“It’s the film industry that formed me the most professionally,” said Azoulay, who has been a staunch defender of the French industry’s “cultural exception” against the Hollywood juggernaut.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is best known for designating and protecting archaeological and heritage sites, from the Galapagos Islands to the tombs of Timbuktu.
Most of its activities are uncontroversial, but when it comes to, say, resolutions about how religious sites should be run in Jerusalem, every word is studied for accusations of bias.
Critics of outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria say she failed to persuade member states to pay their dues and stop politicizing UNESCO’s work.
At the heart of its recent problems is a financing crisis since 2011, when it voted to admit Palestine as a full member state and Washington halted payment of its annual $80 million in dues.
The United States and Israel were among just 14 of 194 members to vote against Palestine’s membership. Washington says it favors an independent Palestinian state some day but it must arise from negotiations, and admitting the Palestinians to international bodies beforehand hurts the peace process.
Israel has regularly complained over resolutions about cultural sites in the West Bank and Jerusalem, arguing that they are worded to delegitimize the Jewish state. Israel’s foes say it uses U.S. support to deflect bona fide criticism.
Without U.S. money, UNESCO, which employs 2,000 people, has been forced to cut programs, freeze hiring and fill gaps with voluntary contributions. Its 2017 budget was about $326 million, almost half its 2012 budget.
Including the United States, which has some $542 million in arrears, the organization is owed almost $650 million. UNESCO officials don’t know if the United States will make up its arrears before it exits on Dec. 31, 2018.
Other major contributors such as Japan, Britain, and Brazil have also yet to pay their dues for 2017, sometimes citing objections to the body’s policies.
“UNESCO was all about solidarity and creating a climate for peace between countries, but nations now use their dues to influence programs,” said a UNESCO-based diplomat. “That needs to change.”
Japan, for example, has threatened to withhold dues over the inclusion of the 1937 Nanking Massacre in the body’s “Memory of the World” program.
Russia and Ukraine have been at odds over Crimea, with Kiev accusing Moscow of trying to legitimize its annexation of the territory through UNESCO.
UNESCO takes decisions based on majority votes. Big countries like the United States that provide most of the funding say their single votes give them little input into how their money is spent.