UNESCO: The 'Conscience of Humanity,' Says Its Head

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova at Asia Society in New York on Mar. 10, 2011. (Suzanna Finley/Asia Society)

NEW YORK, March 10, 2011 - People often talk about globalization in terms of economics and politics, but what are the cultural ramifications of a globalized world? This was the key question of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova's "President's Forum" conversation here with Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai.

Elected Director-General in 2009, Bokova spoke extensively about how culture leads the way in redefining humanity. She has led UNESCO with her vision for "new humanism," and in her talk with Desai, this commitment to preserving culture, as well as providing a humanist response to globalization, were both evident. Bokova aims to see an increasingly global world as a chance to strengthen ties between peoples, nations, and cultures.

"I believe that there is a paradox — on one side, we are more interconnected, we are global. We know immediately what is happening on the other side of the world.... But at the same time, I believe that people, because there are no boundaries, feel more vulnerable and more lonely, and their defense against this is their own identity and their own culture and that's where UNESCO comes in once again, with the protection of cultural diversity, of multi-linguism, of indigenous traditions, of the concept of heritage."

Culture, Bokova pointed out, is not just about the arts; it's not something that signifies elitism. Instead, it defines all people, through their language, their history, and their traditions.  

Another important topic of conversation was the preservation of historical monuments. At the ten-year anniversary of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the question arose: can this type of destruction be prevented in the future? And what is UNESCO's role in the preservation of monuments?

"One of the first destructions, and it is deliberately done in times of conflict, is to destroy culture, because this is what hurts, this is what affects identities," stated Bokova. And although there is no way to prevent these acts, she elaborated on the ways that UNESCO has worked towards educating people about the importance of preserving culture and heritage.

Education was another focus of her talk, particularly on the way that UNESCO is focusing in on literacy and women's education. Other UNESCO goals, such as climate change and conflict reduction also came up, making clear the wide-range of Bokova's priorities for the organization. But as revolutions sweep across North Africa, and Japan confronts a devastating crisis, these issues were as poignant and timely as ever.

Reported by Rachel Rosado