On 13 June, The Hague Institute welcomed Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and candidate for the Secretary-Generalship of the United Nations, to speak on “Challenges of Global Governance in the 21st Century” as part of the ongoing Distinguished Speaker Series at the Institute.
Dr. Abi Williams, President of The Hague Institute, provided welcoming remarks, highlighting the primordial role of UNESCO as a defender of peace. Through its central role in global cooperation in education, culture and science, UNESCO contributes to the prevention of conflicts and the development of robust and agile responses to contemporary global challenges. Advances in science, technology and connectivity offer new opportunities to address these challenges, which are beyond the control of any single state.
Opening with a congratulatory message to The Hague Institute on its 5th anniversary, Bokova reiterated the special role that The Hague, as the international city of peace and justice, plays in confronting global challenges. This role, now amplified by the Netherlands’ Presidency of the EU, stretches from the days of Hugo Grotius to the present.
In her remarks, Bokova noted that while new technologies have created new pathways to prosperity, trade and inter-cultural dialogue, the increasing fragmentation of the international community is a cause for concern. Climate change, poverty, violent conflict, intolerance and extremism present direct threats to the unity and well-being of the international community. Bokova emphasized that we must learn, at the heart of our cities and communities, to live together. She mentioned The Hague Institute’s recent report on the role of cities in conflict prevention as a good example of how to develop innovative and sustainable practices to foster communal harmony.
Bokova also observed that the alarming number of individuals displaced by conflict, which reached a record high in 2015, continues to put pressure on countries across the globe. Migration to Europe has put core values to the test, while the capacities of receiving states in the Middle East, like Lebanon and Jordan, are being pushed to the limit. Attacks on cultural rights and cultural heritage, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Mali, threaten inter-cultural tolerance.
Bokova suggested three points of focus for efforts to address these challenges. First, openness of mind and out-of-the-box thinking is crucial. New ideas must be transformed into norms. Bokova highlighted the historic changes brought about by the idea of human rights and human dignity. In this, the United Nations must take a leading role. UNESCO, as a facilitator of inter-cultural dialogue and proponent of education, can also effect change. Its efforts to teach people about the history of the Holocaust, as well as programs promoting internet literacy, help to instill common values in youth and create environments that are conducive to respectful dialogue.
Secondly, the international community must focus on building resilient societies. By fighting exclusion and fostering inclusion, societies become stronger. Key to this resilience is the role of women. Currently, Bokova argues, this is the weakest aspect of the international community’s work. To facilitate meaningful change, the international community must improve the standing and participation of women in all sectors. Presently, only 60% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, and only 38% in secondary education. Education must also be a priority where refugees are concerned, in order to avoid a “lost generation” of youth.
Third, Bokova urged new thinking about peacebuilding. The world urgently needs legitimate and effective peace efforts, before, during and after conflicts. Preventive measures are key, and must involve the soft power embodied by UNESCO’s educational and inter-cultural programs.
In response to questions posed during the Q&A session, Bokova also discussed how the United Nations and UNESCO could address conflicts related to water and enforce the protection of world heritage.