Bokova: This Century Must Give Women Right to Decide on Their Lives

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UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova during an interview for TASR. (Photo by TASR)

Bratislava, May 8 (TASR) – Challenges that Slovakia is facing in protection of nature and its cultural heritage, necessary changes to the education system, sustainable development and the agenda of Slovakia as the presiding country of the EU Council in the second half of 2016 were among the chief topics debated by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova during her two-day official programme in Slovakia (May 6-7).

In an exclusive interview for TASR while she was still in Slovakia, Bokova also highlighted the issue of gender equality and women’s right to decide on their own what they’ll do with their lives. This is also one of the instruments for making progress towards social, economic and sustainable development, she stressed.

-You’re now for the second time in Slovakia. What did you feel when you were coming here?-

I knew that I was travelling to a country characterised by friendliness and cordiality. At the same time I also see the fact that Slovakia is a country that is developing and expanding its potential. This is also important for UNESCO, mainly in the context of Slovakia’s Presidency of the EU Council.

-What’s the importance of Slovakia’s EU presidency from UNESCO’s perspective?

Many important changes related to Agenda 2030 are being launched in 2016, apart from sustainable development goals as defined by the UN summit in September 2015. At the same time the ratification process for a climate agreement that emerged at the Paris Conference in December 2015 has also been launched. I believe that this agreement will enter into effect when Slovakia will be finishing its EU presidency at the end of this year. And, of course, UNESCO also strives for as close cooperation with European countries as possible in carrying out its goals. By providing support at the helm of the EU Council, Slovakia can contribute towards strengthening this cooperation.

-Slovakia is part of UNESCO not only as a member country, but also as a country with its own entries on the World Heritage List. It’s mainly this list and the list of intangible cultural heritage that make UNESCO known among ordinary people. What do you consider as really extraordinary from the Slovak cultural and natural heritage?-

Each element on the World Heritage List is exceptional. Slovakia is really rich on natural and cultural beauties. I’d perhaps highlight the number of natural parks – so important for preservation and protection of biodiversity. I appreciate that your country has engaged in cross-border cooperation in this sphere very intensely, having realised that biodiversity has neither political, nor geographic borders. This is why it’s important to boost cooperation in this sphere continuously. For example, the attention paid to the Carpathian beech virginal forests in the border area between Slovakia and Ukraine demonstrates that care for natural wealth can significantly contribute towards strengthening cooperation between individual countries.

-On the first day of your visit, you debated protection of natural heritage and water protection with Environment Minister Laszlo Solymos. Meanwhile, the talks with Education, Science, Research and Sport Minister Peter Plavcan concerned, among other things, a reform of the education system. Do you consider this project as really achievable?-

It’s true that Mr. Minister told me about the need for reform. But, of course, it wasn’t a detailed report, so I won’t venture into evaluating the project. Nevertheless, we’ve agreed that it’s necessary to bring new features into the education system in general, and expand education on human rights and also in terms of tolerance. Education should get people acquainted with their own history and the history of others, thereby helping them to know and understand each other. In my opinion, this element will help towards increasing the quality of education and make it closer to the current epoch and its dynamics. Of course, we also debated the education of Roma children. It was Slovakia that a few years ago pointed to an opportunity to shift UNESCO’s focus on this sphere. Since then, we’ve been helping – along with the Council of Europe – in your efforts to increase the quality and inclusion of education in this immensely important sphere.

-Talking about the key role of education in a global context, what are the challenges for UNESCO with respect to setting goals of its 2030 development programme?-

I believe that we’ll manage to push through the need for quality education and its accessibility for all among priorities of the political agenda. I hope that – also with respect to the Agenda 2030 goals – education will begin to be viewed globally as the single most important of the fundamental goals. Of course, the problem of gender equality is closely related to it. In my opinion, it isn’t only about overcoming stereotypes and prejudices from the past – I rather view it as an issue of human rights in general that is very important for economic and social development of individual countries as well. I believe that this century must be a century that will give women the opportunity to decide on their own fates and on ways of integrating in society. This will be good not only for themselves and society, but it will also contribute towards peace and sustainable development.

-Apart from your efforts to boost the status of women, you’re also known for promoting the idea of European unity. Do you view this issue and support for a united Europe to be more important now than at any time before?-

I’m a proud European, a European by conviction. I regard it highly that I had the privilege to represent the government of my country in accession talks to the EU. As an MP, foreign affairs minister and ambassador to France, I’ve always fought for European integration. This issue is especially important for us from Eastern Europe – we remember well how Europe was divided in the past. I’m happy that my generation was given the opportunity to work on overcoming this division, to tear down this ‘Berlin Wall’ and make the idea of a united Europe whole. I know that it isn’t easy now, as we have to cope with new challenges, but I’m convinced that a Europe based on democratic and humanistic principles must remain the very foundation of this project. I’ll continue viewing a united Europe as principally a political project, based on common values, and only then as a connection motivated by economic benefits.

-Europe has had to cope with various crises since 2009, when you became the UNESCO chief. Economic problems and political turbulence have contributed to a growth of extremism and instability, they’ve put the cultural heritage to risk, and they’ve also been playing a role in the current migration crisis in Europe. Is Europe’s unity and Europe as such currently in peril?-

The world is changing, we all can see it. We’ve been ever more frequently and strongly confronted with changes and conflicts as of late. Europe has had to face unexpected challenges, but I believe that it has enough inner strength to overcome them. I believe that a partnership between the EU and UNESCO is important here – they share the same values and the same goals. I set up a UNESCO representation office with the EU in 2010, and the Union has since then provided millions in euros for our projects concerning press freedom, education of journalists, gender equality and refugees. Also considering current challenges, I think that it will be important to strengthen this partnership in the future.

-You’ve mentioned press freedom. We marked the World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Why is this sphere, included among goals of the sustainable development programme, so important today?-

Press freedom, in my opinion, isn’t only a human right – it’s basically the foundation of what we are and what we can be. Access to information, innovations and creativity provide the basis for sustainable development in any society. It’s thanks to this that we’re able to share information and contribute towards finding solutions and tackling inequalities. UNESCO actively supports journalists’ safety, believing that they shouldn’t be put at risk of violence, while their freedom of opinion should be secured. This is why the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists was adopted.

-Perhaps you’ll be dealing with this issue next year as the UN secretary-general… Do you think that you’ll be able to use your experience from your seven-year tenure as UNESCO head in this post?-

First of all I feel a great deal of responsibility just for being among the candidates for this post. I value the official support of my country’s Government, which confirmed my candidacy in February. I dare to say that these years at the helm of UNESCO have taught me a lot about how to prevent conflicts, mitigate tension, fight against extremism, tackle inequalities and develop inclusion. I believe that apart from security decisions, I’d also be able to consider preventive measures to forestall conflicts.

-You met Slovak Foreign and European Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajcak during your visit to Slovakia. He’s considering running for the UN chief as well. Did you see a rival in him?-

No, certainly not. Mr. Lajcak isn’t my rival – he’s my good friend. After all, it’s an open competition, and those who’re running deserve it due to their skills. I don’t view it as a contest with adversaries; for me, it’s rather an opportunity to bring in new ideas and ponder the UN’s future and opportunities for boosting diversity, which is so needed in today’s world.