Audrey Azoulay, who is of French-Moroccan heritage (pictured with school children in Paris), says her multicultural family history as something that would boost her ability to form a consensus at UNESCO / Photo: AAF

French-Moroccan woman elected head of UNESCO as US quits

Former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay has been chosen as the new Director-General of the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Azoulay defeated Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari after the fifth round of voting and the decision will now be put forward for approval to UNESCO’s 195 members on 10 November. If Azoulay’s election is approved, she will succeed Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian politician and the first female to head the organization, who has been director general of the UN agency since 2009.

Azoulay, who is of French-Moroccan heritage, wants to take UNESCO back to its original purpose of protecting “the world heritage of humanity.”

She says her multicultural family history as something that would boost her ability to form a consensus at UNESCO. Her grandmother was a Sephardic Jew – while her father is an adviser to the King of Morocco and her mother and aunt are French writers. Azoulay’s parents have always divided their time between Rabat and Paris, where she was born in 1972.

“If I’m confirmed, the first thing I will do is work to restore its credibility,” said Azoulay following her win, “restore the faith of its members and its efficiency so it can act on the challenges facing our world because it is the only organization that can.”

The election of the new UNESCO chief was preceded by the sudden announcement on Thursday that Israel and United States were quitting the organization, citing anti-Israeli bias as a major reason.

Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, who lost to the former French culture minister after the fifth round of voting, congratulates the winner in a spirit of fair-play / Photo: Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari Twitter


“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organisation, and continuing anti-Israel bias,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The US withdrawal is a big financial blow to the global agency, which protects the world’s heritage sites, and means that the new UNESCO head would inherit a body with huge questions over its future funding.

Washington has already withheld its funding for UNESCO since 2011, when the body admitted Palestine as a full member. The United States and Israel were among just 14 of 194 members that voted against admitting the Palestinians. Washington’s arrears on its US$80 million annual dues since then are now over $500 million.

Although Washington supports a future independent Palestinian state, it says this should emerge out of peace talks and it considers it unhelpful for international organizations to admit Palestine until negotiations are complete.

In recent years, Israel has repeatedly complained about what it says is the body taking sides in disputes over cultural heritage sites in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

Vivian Asamoah

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