Lebanese candidate quits UNESCO race
BEIRUT: The Lebanese candidate for UNESCO director-general dropped out of the contentious electoral race Thursday, as the U.S. and Israel declared their withdrawal from the agency itself.
Vera El-Khoury Lacoeuilhe voluntarily dropped out of the election ahead of the fourth round of voting in Paris Thursday night.
“The elections were very politicized. [They had] nothing to do with culture and education,” Lacoeuilhe told The Daily Star. “We campaigned on substance and ideas. Politics were always present in these elections but [I’ve] never seen anything like this.”
Speaking on local news station MTV after her withdrawal, Lacoeuilhe thanked the Lebanese government and people for supporting the campaign.
“There are still a lot of battles and Lebanon is raising its head high,” Lacoeuilhe said, adding that “we had the best campaign, everyone has attested to this. [The election] was politicized in a way that we have never seen before. This will not help stability anywhere in the world.”
The Lebanese diplomat added that candidates from Arab states had aimed to close ranks around one of their number from the region.
This is despite the tensions between the Egypt and Qatar, which have both fielded candidates. The roots of the divide stem from the Gulf crisis in which Egypt and three other Arab countries severed ties with Qatar in June this year.
The director-general position was unofficially slated to be filled by a candidate from the Middle East, as it is the only region that has never been represented in the post.
The agency has, however, recently been a theater for political disputes tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, causing some commentators to contend that electing a head from an Arab nation would intensify, rather than ease, tensions.
The remaining candidates after the fourth round of voting represent Qatar, France and Egypt. Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari won 22 votes in the latest round, with France’s Audrey Azoulay and Egypt’s Moushira Khattab drawing 18 votes each. Kawari and Azoulay were neck and neck after the third round.
The fourth round result requires an eliminating ballot from the 58member UNESCO Executive Board restricted to the tied candidates in order to produce two contenders for the final vote. This ballot is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday in Paris; the final and fifth vote will follow at 6:30 p.m.
As the contentious election was underway, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the agency.
Following the U.S. statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would follow suit.
“[Netanyahu] welcomed the decision by President [Donald] Trump to withdraw from UNESCO. This is a courageous and moral decision because UNESCO has become the theater of the absurd and because instead of preserving history it distorts it,” a statement from Netanyahu’s media office said.
The U.S. withdrawal will go into effect on Dec. 31.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. It added that the U.S. would seek to “remain engaged … as a nonmember observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise.” The U.S. will also still be able to vote on the board.
The U.S. previously contributed around $80 million annually to UNESCO, accounting for around a fifth of its budget. It now owes around $550 million in back payments. However, in 2011 the U.S. stopped funding the agency to protest a decision to grant Palestine full membership.
The U.S. previously pulled out of the organization in the 1980s under the Reagan administration but rejoined in 2003.
Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon said the decision marked “a turning point” for the United Nations. “Today is a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel,” Danon said. He added that “UNESCO has become a battlefield for Israel-bashing and has disregarded its true role and purpose.”
The U.K.’s Prime Minister Theresa May said that the U.S. withdrawal was a matter for them, but affirmed her government’s commitment to the U.N. cultural body.
France’s ambassador to the U.N., Francois Delattre, said UNESCO’s ideals were “part of America’s DNA” and that “we need an America that stays committed to world affairs.”
The current director of UNESCO expressed “profound regret” at the U.S. move. – With agencies
Lacoeuilhe said the elections were “politicized in every way.”