The Election is over

October 25, 1999 --

As many of you have heard or read, the election was concluded on the evening of Wednesday the 20th of October, with the election of Ambassador Matsuura of Japan by 34 votes, and the withdrawal of most of the other candidates. Ismail Serageldin stayed on to the end because many of us in and out of UNESCO asked him not to withdraw, even when it was apparent that the election could not be won, because of the ideas that he represented. Jack Fobes of the USA and Nadim Dimechkie of Lebanon, two eminent persons who participated in the creation of UNESCO at the end of the War, and attended the Founding London conference, and who were in Paris for the elections, both personally asked Ismail to stay to the last to represent the ideals of UNESCO, and thanked him for having done so after the result.

The result is clear. State pressures overcame any other dimension. The African delegates who were supposed to be the bulk of Ismail’s base were the most vulnerable to that pressure. And in that state to state logic the Arab states stayed with the Saudi Arabian candidate. Most of the other voters were pressured to vote for Japan, regardless of whom the Ambassador in Paris actually wanted to vote for.

Ismail refused to say anything more than that he regretted that the decision had been swayed more by the bilateral interests of the states than the interests of UNESCO, and that the movement to elect a country and not a person raises questions on the criteria used by the electors. A statement that was carried by radio, TV and in many papers. He was calm and dignified and spent time consoling many supporters who were very angry and despondent.

As for the electors, the 58 members of the Executive Board, they all said that they had their instructions. The instructions were formulated in the capitals of the countries and had nothing to do with the election process in Paris.

Thus those of us who were committed to an open campaign of ideas can ask the following two questions:

Why the pretense and charade about an open process? If the Executive Board was just there to formally cast votes that were decided thousands of miles away, why did they pretend that they needed to have the candidates present a 2000 word statement by September 10th and then come and meet with them individually and in groups before the election and finally to formally appear for a hearing of exactly 30 minutes for each candidate with the candidate having 10 minutes oral presentation and then six questions with 3 minutes per answer. A process that implied an evaluation going on by the electors themselves, and for which Ismail thanked them [See: letter in English or letter in French]. The results make a mockery of that process.

For the UN institution charged with education, science, culture, human rights and development – how can the opinions of 300 of the worlds most eminent persons in all these fields, coming from 55 countries, including an amazing 48 Nobel laureates, count for nothing? It is a sad day at UNESCO when that happens.

The Press covered the rapidly changing events daily. What they had to say is in the public domain. Le Monde (October 21, 1999) and Liberation (October 22, 1999) had particularly unvarnished comments. The staid Le Monde even carried a cartoon of a ballot box being stuffed by a check. These views were widely shared by other journalists, including Agence France Press (AFP).

For the record, while Ray Vincent stayed in the USA, Obsis Madkour was in Paris for the elections.


Ray Vincent and Obsis Madkour