Every two years, the General Conference, the supreme ruling body of UNESCO, convenes the representatives of all Member States, which now number 193 since Montenegro’s accession to membership and Singapore’s return. Close to 4,000 participants, including ten heads of State and government and more than 270 ministers and deputy ministers, attended this session that took place at the Headquarters of the Organization from 16 October to 2 November and was presided by George N. Anastassopoulos, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of the Hellenic Republic to UNESCO.
In his closing address, the president of the General Conference declared that all Member States concurred in recognizing “the importance of the Organization’s role in its fields of competence.” Yet, he added: “UNESCO has to become much stronger, more robust and resolutely outward-looking, if it really wants to make a difference. None of us has the right to underestimate our achievements – and it is true that UNESCO has had its success stories, but there still have to be many more, if we aim to meet our peoples’ expectations.” When he was elected to the Presidency, Mr Anastassopoulos had said that “in order truly to play the role of ethical conscience of humanity, UNESCO cannot merely be the curator of the fine values of yesteryear. UNESCO must not be only a statue, it must be vigilant.”
The Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, during the closing ceremony welcomed the consensus achieved during the session: “It was reached on several occasions about a variety of subjects of a different nature and consequence. There was consensus around my proposed budget ceiling; also on the need to pursue the reforms undertaken and build on positive results already achieved.” He also spoke of political consensus achieved “in areas where others cannot even speak to one another, to the taking of decisions that are wise, just and full of hope about subjects pertaining to the very heart of human dignity.”
The flags of Montenegro and of Singapore were hoisted at UNESCO during the 34th session, marking the accession to membership of the former and the return of the latter. Many States welcomed these new memberships which mark “a decisive step towards universality, which, for UNESCO, represents a major force and a source of legitimacy,” in the words of the Director-General. “Each new membership reinforces multilateralism, paving the way to an effective global response to the ever more complex challenges of our times.”
In keeping with its Constitutional role to “determine the policies and the main lines of work of the Organization,” the General Conference reviewed the full range of the Organization’s programmes and adopted UNESCO’s Medium Term Strategy for 2008 to 2013 as well as its Programme and Budget for 2008-2009. The strategy, conceived to evolve, sets out five priorities:
- Attaining life long quality education for all;
- Mobilizing science knowledge and policy for sustainable development;
- Addressing emerging ethical challenges;
- Fostering cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue;
- and Building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication.
During this time, Africa and gender equality will also be priorities for the Organization in all its fields of competence and specific activities will be pursued for youth, the least developed countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDs).
As to the 2008 to 2009 biennium, the General Conference adopted the Director-General’s proposal for a US$ 631 million budget, which represents an increase of 3.4% in nominal value. Education remains the first priority was allocated the sum of US 108.4 million. The natural sciences were given US$ 56 million, whereas the social sciences were granted slightly more than US$ 29.1 million. The culture sector received US$ 51.3 million and the communication and information sector was given close to US$ 32 million.
Noteworthy among the many decisions taken during the session, are: in education, Initiative on Teacher Training in sub-Saharan Africa (TTISSA), bolstered promotion for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and the holding of a World Conference on Higher Education +10 in 2009.
In the sciences, the General Conference voiced the desire to reinforce the activities of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), which is responsible for the tsunami early warning systems and decided on the creation of several centres, notably concerning water, development of sustainable energy sources, karst research.
For the human and social sciences, the General Conference approved the establishment in Greece of an Observatory on Women, Sport and Physical Education and asked for a feasibility study on the creation, in Buenos Aires, of an International Institute for Human Rights Education and supported the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In culture, emphasis was placed on improving management of the World Heritage Centre and reinforcing the fight against illegal traffic in cultural objects. Other topics discussed included creating a regional centre for underwater archaeology in Zadar (Croatia), setting up a training and research institute on world heritage for the Asian-Pacific region (China), and carrying out a feasibility study for an African culture and international understanding institute in Abeokuta (Nigeria).
In information and communication, the General Conference approved Bahrain’s proposal to found a regional centre for information and communication technologies, under the aegis of UNESCO. To be located in Manana, it will be the first centre of this kind. The Conference also gave its support to intersectoral activities, notably the use of information and communication technologies in education and the social sciences.
In addition, a resolution of the Conference has asked the Director-General to explore the role UNESCO could play in actions aimed at preserving the memory of the Holocaust through education, and preventing all forms of its denial.
Ten heads of state or government*, as well as Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco, participated in this session of the General Conference: President Georgi Parvanov of the Republic of Bulgaria, and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden (16 October); President Karolos Papoulias of the Hellenic Republic (18 October); President Branko Crvenkovski of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of the United Republic of Tanzania (22 October); Prime Minister Ralph E. Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and President Paul Biya of the Republic of Cameroon, (23 October); President Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, (29 October); President Nicanor Duarte Frutos of the Republic of Paraguay and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea (30 October).
Among other noteworthy events during the session were two Ministerial Round Tables*. The round table on Education and Economic Development on 19 and 20 October brought together nearly 100 ministers and vice-ministers of education. Participants reaffirmed their commitment to quality education through curricula that meet the needs of the global market and the knowledge economy. They went on to stress the importance of international dialogue to “to counter the negative impact of brain drain”, and encouraged public-private partnerships so that “effective bridges are built between education and the world of work”. They agreed furthermore that education for sustainable development should be integrated at all levels of learning, both formal and non-formal. The second round table - "Science and Technology for Sustainable Development and the Role of UNESCO" – took place on 26 and 27 October, with 48 ministers and 25 vice-ministers attending. The participants stressed the need to enhance scientific education and develop international cooperation.
*For press releases or other documents on these visits and meetings, go to http://www.unesco.org