Saudi to Champion Press Freedom and Women's Rights
Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)
AT FIRST glance, the proposition seems absurd. A Saudi diplomat and politician is a leading contender to become the next director- general of Unesco, the UN agency which promotes, among other things, women's equality, press freedom and democracy.
Ghazi Algosaibi - Saudi ambassador to London since 1992, poet, author, and as liberal minded a politician as his country has ever produced - sees no objection to his appointment as the world's spokesman for education, culture, science and freedom of speech. "The Saudi kingdom was the third country to sign the Unesco charter," he points out. "We have been loyal and generous members for 50 years. Who is going to say that we can belong to the club but that we have no right to stand for club secretary?"
Quite a lot of people, it seems.
Mr Algosaibi's personal qualifications to run Unesco - the UN educational, scientific and cultural organisation - are high. He is a former Saudi minister, with a reputation as a tough administrator, who promises (finally) to bring the bloated, top-heavy and unfocused Unesco bureaucracy in Paris under control. Within his own country, he led the successful campaign to give girls the same educational opportunities as boys.
He is a respected writer and thinker on the problems of Third World development, which has failed, he says, because it imposed faceless, economic development before promoting individual, human development.
If elected next month, he says, he would re-focus Unesco's efforts on the failing struggle against illiteracy (one billion people in the world cannot read) and the new threat posed by "computer illiteracy".
But opposition is growing within the Unesco administration, within the human rights industry and even within parts of the Arab world to the notion that the world cultural body might be led from November by a man who represents a country with no functioning democracy, no free press and harsh restrictions on the social rights and movements of women.
"Algosaibi, as a man, may be a good choice. Symbolically, his appointment would destroy whatever credibility this organisation has left," a senior Unesco staff member from a Western country said last week. "How could we be taken seriously as an agency which promotes equality and freedom of thought and speech if our director-general comes from a country which is a by-word for narrowness and repression?" The problem, as a diplomat accredited to Unesco said, is that "Algosaibi is an impressive man, amid a bunch of candidates who are mostly as dull as ditch-water".
There have been seven Unesco directors-general since 1946 and five of them have been Westerners (including the first holder of the post, the British novelist and scientist Aldous Huxley, and the present incumbent, Frederico Mayor from Spain). One of the two exceptions was Amadou M'Bow, from Senegal, whose disastrous tenure up to 1987 - unproven allegations of corruption and the promotion of a Soviet and Third World influenced "new" concept of press "freedom" - led Britain and the US to quit the organisation. Britain rejoined in 1997.
It is generally accepted that the new director-general must come from Asia or the Arab world, or possibly eastern Europe. There are 11 candidates, but only four are reckoned to have any chance.
Mr Algosaibi has the backing of the Arab League and the Islamic Conference. The Japanese ambassador to Paris, Koichiro Matsuuro - regarded as worthy but uninspiring - has the support of most Asian countries. The former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans - not at all a dull man - is an outside possibility and will probably get Britain's first preference vote (although no official decision has been made).
The joker in the pack is a late entrant, an Egyptian World Bank official called Ismael Serageldin, who …
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Publication information: Article title: Saudi to Champion Press Freedom and Women's Rights. Contributors: Lichfield, John - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 19, 1999. Page number: 23. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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