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UNESCO Names New Leader After Groundbreaking Campaign

UNESCO LogoThe top position at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has settled on a new leader today after five rounds of fiercely contested voting.

The UN’s leading cultural body elected Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova by a vote of 31-27 over her opponent, Egypt’s controversial cultural minister, Farouk Hosni.

After yesterday’s vote ended in a 29-29 draw, what was it that finally tipped the scales for Bokova, and what does her election mean for UNESCO?

With 22 years experience as Egypt’s culture minister, Hosni was at one time thought to be the frontrunner to succeed Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura as director-general, especially considering how many world cultural sites exist in Egypt.

Old City of Dubrovnik, UNESCO World Heritage SiteHis supporters, who hail him as a “man of peace,” also said the Egyptian’s election would be step forward for relations with the Muslim world. However, Hosni’s campaign was ultimately derailed by allegations of anti-Semitism, which his detractors said made him an unsuitable candidate for an organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding.

Hosni made the offending comments while speaking before the Egyptian parliament last year, and reportedly said he would burn Israeli books if he found them in Egyptian libraries. After the incident, Hosny apologized and suggested that his words were taken out of context. He also pointed to a synagogue restoration project his ministry spearheaded in Cairo.

Check out some Great, Lesser-Known UNESCO World Heritage Sites

In addition to coming under fire from Jewish intellectuals, Hosni also faced opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood group over his suggestion that the hijab head covering was a “step backward” for Egyptian women.

Jordan’s Petra World Heritage SiteThese controversies opened the door for Irina Bokova, an experienced diplomat with stints in international politics.

Bokova is currently Bulgaria’s ambassador to France and a permanent representative to UNESCO. She has been the vice-president for committees on defense, security, and foreign affairs. She is also credited with being a part of the team that negotiated Bulgaria’s entry into the EU and NATO.

UNESCO was established in 1945 to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture.

One way it does this is through its “World Heritage List,” which recognizes locations of major global importance, whether they are natural (like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) or manmade (like the historic city center of Salzburg, Austria), that make up our world’s heritage.

Check out the newest UNESCO World Heritage sites in this slideshow.

Old Bridge Area of Mostar, BosniaSites that make the list often blossom into significant tourist attractions, like Mostar, Bosnia’s Old Bridge or South Africa’s Robben Island.

However, the selection of Preah Vihear Temple, which reignited a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand, serves as a reminder of the high value of a World Heritage Site designation and the importance many countries place on their natural and cultural resources.

In addition to the many heated votes, this will be remembered as a groundbreaking election for UNESCO. The vote final vote came down to candidates from the Arab world and Eastern Europe, two regions which have never been elected to lead the organization. Meanwhile, when she is confirmed on October 15, Bokova will be the first woman to lead UNESCO.

By Dan Bence for

Related Links: UNESCO World Hertiage Sites, Al Jazeera Middle East, UNESCO News, Al Jazeera Europe

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