Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Interview with Federico Mayor

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Interview with Federico Mayor

Article excerpt

* The current session of UNESCO's General Conference is taking place at an exceptional moment in world history. In the last two years we have seen radical changes in the order established by the victors of the Second World War. Are UNESCO's activities going to change as a result?

-- Of course they are adapting to these changes. Paradoxically, UNESCO is thus returning to its original mission. The United Nations Organization was created to maintain world peace. The Charter of the United Nations defined several major principles: respect for justice, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction of race, sex, language or religion. UNESCO's mission is to develop intellectual co-operation in the fields of culture, education, science and communication.

For over forty years its effectiveness was limited, for two reasons. Four-fifths of humanity lived in colonized and dependent countries where the basic principles of the United Nations Charter could hardly be applied. The bipolar division of the world had provoked the cold war and ideological opposition between East and West. UNESCO's initiatives were confronted and very often paralyzed by this situation. The UN itself could only play a limited role in the prevention and solution of conflicts. The situation today is totally new. Most of the former colonies have become independent and their voices are starting to be heard on the world stage. In the last two years the totalitarian regimes of eastern and central Europe and the Balkans have fallen. The USSR itself has begun a long journey towards democracy and respect for human rights. South Africa is attempting to put an end to apartheid.

The conditions now exist in which ideological confrontations and fear of the Other can disappear. The principles of the United Nations Charter can be taken into account by humanity without the arriere-pensees and manipulations we have known for forty-five years.

* Does this mean that from now on everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds?

-- Certainly not. But I wanted to make these observations which allow us to be more optimistic today than ever before in the past. The problems to be solved today and tomorrow are enormous but we can try to solve them by talking the same language and with a greater chance of success.

There are two things I would like to add. Firstly, although these principles are accepted by everyone, they are not respected by everyone. In its capacity as the intellectual component of the United Nations system, UNESCO has a duty to identify the obstacles which prevent their application and to help to overcome them. Secondly, the principles themselves must be further refined. We live in an inegalitarian world. Below a certain level of poverty and deprivation, freedom loses its substance, civic equality becomes an abstraction. If they are to be given tangible form, these universal values must be accompanied by real acts of solidarity, by an ethic of sharing. If some people enjoy prosperity, knowledge and culture in rich world while others are deprived of these benefits of civilization, the world cannot be at peace. The duty of fraternity is an ethical imperative, for humanity is one and indivisible in its diversity.

* We are still far from this state of solidarity.

-- That is why we are going through an uncertain transitional period in which the best and the worst exist side by side, in which the highest expectations are accompanied by terrible risks. It would be more accurate to talk in terms of several transitions, taking place in different time-scales and at different rhythyms, yet linked to one another, inextricably intertwined. In some cases national sovereignty and independence are leading to extremes of nationalism based on exclusivity and rejection. Alas, from the blossoming of cultural identities in a framework of freedom it is possible to take a pathological course which leads to the exclusion of others. …

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