Lost in Washington? The Disappearing Director-General of UNESCO

by CLAUDIA ROSETT December 18, 2012

I know, I know - the news of the hour is UN Ambassador Susan Rice. But there's plenty of interesting commentary right now about Rice (including her own op-ed in the The Washington Post, where, under the headline "Why I Was Right to Withdraw," she argues that it shouldn't be about her). Let us move for a moment to one of the sideshows, where a small mystery all its own is taking shape - involving Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

UNESCO has been in an odd spot since its member states, in gleeful defiance of the official U.S. position, voted last year to admit the Palestinian Authority to full membership. This act, with which UNESCO greatly exceeded its brief as a UN agency by trying to unilaterally confer statehood on the Palestinians, resulted in UNESCO losing its U.S. funding, which was running about $78 million per year, or more than 22% of UNESCO's core budget. The funding cut was not the preferred tactic of the Obama administration, which would like to continue bankrolling UNESCO regardless. Rather, the block of U.S. government money is required by U.S. laws, which forbid contributing to any part of the UN that tries to confer statehood on any group not fully equipped with the attributes of a state.

The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, didn't mind UNESCO admitting the Palestinians, but she was not at all pleased to have UNESCO lose more than $78 million per year in U.S. lucre. So, like many people who want money from Washington, she has been making more trips to Washington than one might otherwise suppose necessary. She has also dispatched an American UNESCO staffer, George Papagiannis, a former congressional aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, to serve as her liaison in Washington (well, officially he's based in New York, but Washington is where he keeps turning up). UNESCO's basic approach is that UNESCO wants American taxpayers' money; but UNESCO is not about to reverse its admission of the Palestinian Authority. UNESCO would prefer to see America reverse its own laws. Will there perhaps be a waiver authority for President Obama slipped into some big spending bill? More on how this is now playing out in my column today at National Review Online on "Game Plan for the UNESCO Shakedown." 

Given that Bokova, in interviews and speeches, has been pushing for the resumption of U.S. funding for UNESCO (and, by implication, U.S. dismissal of its own laws), it seems worth keeping an eye out for her activities when she visits Washington. For her previous trips (at least those I'm aware of), it wasn't that hard. Her travels to Washington last December, and again in March, were high profile. There were press releases and interviews and banquet speeches open to the press. For her September visit, there was a lot less fanfare, but she did appear in a photo at Washington's Kennedy Center.

But this week, with a fresh push apparently in the works for the U.S. to resume funding UNESCO, Bokova embarked for Washington - and simply dropped off the public grid. UNESCO has confirmed that she is in Washington as I write this, but no one could (or would) say for quite how long, or where, or when she might be seeing whom. The only advance notice of her trip came not from UNESCO, but via the web site of a cultural organization called US/ICOMOS, (the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites), which was advertising a $500-per-plate Benefit Gala of the 40th Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, to be held December 12 in Washington, cocktails at 6:30 PM, dinner at 7:30 PM, with Bokova as guest of honor. I phoned before the event, and was told by the director of US/ICOMOS that the dinner was sold out, and closed to the press - and yes, indeed, Irina Bokova would be attending.

But on the UNESCO web site, I could find no mention of the director-general's plans for this gala dinner in Washington on Dec. 12. There was plenty about her activities in Paris, her trip last month to Cuba, and so on. But nothing about her plans to visit Washington. No press release, no blurb. Zip.

I sent a query to the UNESCO press office in Paris, asking such routine questions as how long the director-general would be in Washington, when she was planning to arrive and depart, and whether she was planning any other events, such as meetings with lawmakers.

It took UNESCO's Paris press office four days, during which I twice re-sent my questions, to provide an answer of sorts. The main purpose of her trip, they said, was the US/ICOMOS dinner on Dec. 12, and she had also scheduled meetings with the UN Foundation, the State Department, and "Other Institutes and foundations." In semi-answer to my question about whether Bokova would be meeting with U.S. legislators or congressional staff, they said only that she was "exploring a range of meetings on Capitol Hill," but no specifics were provided because "The schedule has not been finalized." They did not say when Bokova would depart Washington, but they did mention that during her visit to the U.S. she would be attending the annual dinner of the UN Correspondents' Association - which is held in New York, and scheduled this year for Dec. 19.

So, what business might UNESCO's director-general be conducting, in Washington or beyond, between Dec. 12 and Dec. 19? Evidently at least some of it entailed a fair amount of preparatory work in Washington. Earlier this week, I emailed a question to UNESCO staffer Papagiannis, who serves as  her "liaison" in Washington, and got the reply that he was too busy ducking in and out of meetings to tell me anything.

The night of Dec. 12, with the sold-out closed-to-the-press gala dinner, Bokova as guest of honor, came and went. Not a peep about it from UNESCO. No press releases. No photos on the UNESCO site. Nothing in the press. Not a whisper to suggest Bokova was in Washington.

On Dec. 13, because I was writing about her visit, I set out to confirm that she had actually materialized in Washington. You might suppose that would be a fairly easy thing to do. She is, after all, the director-general of UNESCO. UNESCO has an amply staffed press office in Paris, and a liaison office at UN headquarters in New York. The UN has a UN Information Center in Washington. And I had the email address and phone number of the aide who had been ducking in and out of meetings to organize Bokova's Washington trip.

I began working my way through the list, starting with the Paris press office, to catch them before the office closed, six time zones ahead of the U.S. east coast. Got nothing but voicemail.

I phoned the UNESCO liaison office in New York, and was told by the staffer who answered the phone that she had no idea where the director-general was, and didn't know where her own office colleagues were, either. They had gone out, maybe to lunch. Call back in an hour. Or maybe an hour and a half.

I phoned the UN Information Center in Washington, and reached a congenial staffer who told me that he had no information on the schedule or whereabouts of the UNESCO director-general, apart from a notice that she would be in Washington on Dec. 13 (not on Dec. 12). He had received from UNESCO no further information on what she was doing, whom she was seeing, or when she was leaving. It seems that UN agencies are not expected to keep UN Information Centers informed of anything unless they are in the mood to do so.

Once again, I checked the UNESCO site. There was a press release dated Dec. 13 that mentioned Bokova, but it had nothing to do with her Washington trip. If anything, it implied she was elsewhere, maybe Paris, or Latin America. It was about her designation of a young Colombian social scientist as the winner of a prize for research on youth violence. This was beginning to feel like we'd entered the realms of Hitchcock's vanishing man in North by Northwest.

I was about to call the UNESCO aide, Papagiannis (who had been too busy organizing meetings for Bokova to disclose what meetings he was organizing), when I received an email from him, responding to one of my phone messages. It said only: "I got your call. Our meetings are very fluid. At the end of the visit there will be a press release, which you will have access to."

OK, so that amounted to confirmation from a UNESCO source that Bokova was indeed in Washington. Since then, UNESCO has posted on its site her speech at the Dec. 12 US/ICOMOS dinner, inviting the assembled guests to "think big."And the Paris press office, in response to another of my queries, has confirmed that Bokova was indeed there, in Washington, and delivered this address in person. But beyond that, "No press releases on this visit are planned at this point."

Perhaps there's nothing more going on here than the head of a U.S.-defunded UN agency enjoying the Washington sunshine and social life, in which case, Merry Christmas. Everyone needs a little time to unwind. But  this is unusual behavior, and given UNESCO's interest in getting hold once again of $79 million or more per year in U.S. tax dollars, at the expense to the U.S. not only of a lot of money, but of waiving America's own law and eroding the credibility of American policy that the Palestinians must arrive at statehood via a negotiated peace with Israel, this trip is worrying. What's UNESCO Director-General Bokova doing in Washington that is so fluid and so secret?

Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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