Q&A with UN Secretary General Candidate Irina Bokova

6 minute read

The UN will be selecting a new Secretary General this fall. TIME foreign affairs columnist Ian Bremmer spoke with Irina Bokova, Bulgaria’s former foreign minister and the director general of UNESCO, about how she would change the UN:


What is the single most important thing that a UN Secretary General can do to make the United Nations and more effective institution.

The next Secretary General should refocus the work of the UN on its core tasks: maintaining peace and security; encouraging sustainable development; protecting human rights and promoting tolerance. To achieve this, the organisation should become much more efficient, accountable and transparent.

The Charter of the United Nations provides the Secretary General with ample powers to initiate the necessary reforms and to steer the system in the right direction. My conviction is that the UN can and should do more with less and my experience proves that this is a realistic and achievable goal.


What aspect of the U.N.’s work do you believe is in greatest need of reform?

Prevention of conflicts and peace building should become the main activity of the UN system and the center of attention for the future Secretary-General. We should anticipate potential conflicts and tackle the causes, not just remedy the outcomes. Efficient peacekeeping and peace building must encompass a much broader range of activities: from early warning and meditation, risk reduction and rapid response to humanitarian crises, natural disasters and heritage destruction, to education and promotion of dialogue. We have to aspire to create societies that are resilient, just and inclusive which is the objective of the Agenda 2030.


You have called for a “new multilateralism, ” one “based on shared values and norms.” But even within the Security Council, there are substantial differences and political, economic, and cultural values and norms. What can the Secretary-General do to foster a new consensus within the Security Council?

It is natural, I believe, that the nations of the world, including the members of the Security Council should have sometimes different political interests and economic priorities. Finding the common denominator between them through diplomacy and negotiation is precisely why the United Nations was created in the first place. This is by no means an easy task, yet we know it is achievable: COP21 and Agenda 2030 are recent examples of common effort for the common good. Both are a big achievement of the UN and I will spare no effort to make the UN system efficient in accompanying Governments for their implementation.

As to cultural diversity and heritage, they themselves are among the greatest treasures of mankind, treasures that we at UNESCO protect and promote. UNESCO’s diverse membership has always been an asset when we needed to mobilise global opinion and enlist countries’ support in order to protect world heritage, promote girls education, safeguard media freedom and freedom of speech, or fight and religious intolerance, hatred and anti-Semitism.


You are advocate “peace, dialogue, prevention of conflicts and violent extremism through education, protection of heritage, upholding human rights and gender equality.” But much of the world’s violence is fuelled by differences over heritage, gender, and rights. How can the United Nations help resolve this problem?

This is indeed the challenge we are facing today. The world’s population is growing rapidly, migration moves millions across borders, technology and globalisation have made the world even smaller. Communities need to learn to live together like no generation before. We are now confronted with “otherness”, not at faraway borders, but at our very doorstep. I strongly believe that the division nowadays is between those who believe in “living together” and those who deny it.

Isolation, ignorance, intolerance and fear generate religious fundamentalism and populism, lead to conflicts and violence, provide a rich feeding ground for terrorism. Coupled with political depravity, economic inequality and social exclusion, it is an explosive mix that the United Nations must confront without delay.

There is no instant magic recipes: education, including education for global citizenship, cultural literacy, awareness of the “others”, experience of their cultures, early stage engagement between communities, promotion of dialogue – these are the ways to learn to live together in a diverse and more tolerant world.

The often quoted phrase from the UNESCO Constitution states that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. This is a truth I share fully.


No institution can be all things to all people. What things do you believe the UN should avoid trying to do?

The UN exists to promote peace and security, encourage sustainable development and protect human rights for all. This is the universal framework, within which all societies should be free to pursue their goals in accordance with their cultural identity and convictions.

The UN should be ready when necessary to defend resolutely its fundamental principles with all the instruments, provided by the UN Charter, and, at the same time, respect the diversity of its members and promote the dialogue as a mean to foster cooperation and prevent conflict.


In what way would you “redefine and revitalize peace operations?”

As I mentioned earlier, efficient peacekeeping must aim at preventing conflict, rather than reacting to its aftermaths. It requires a much more forward-looking UN system, with a better coordination of the broad range of political, economic and humanitarian tools at its disposal. The role of the Secretary General is crucial in order to focus the efforts of the UN system and to engage proactively with the member states and the Security Council in particular when such operations are required in the planning, coordinating and monitoring of the outcomes of such missions. Investing in political processes and development is the best investment for sustaining peace.

The Secretary General must also restore the full trust and confidence of the public in the UN peace operations and its peacekeeping forces through strict and efficient zero tolerance policy for improper behaviour or abuse of power. Resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace and security should be taken seriously and implemented jointly with the reviews of the peacekeeping operations. Last, but not least, one of the biggest challenges nowadays is sustaining peace and this is where I will put most of the efforts through strengthening the rule of law and promoting peaceful, inclusive and just societies.

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