Can Middle East Diplomacy Help UNESCO Preserve Itself?

The UN culture and patrimony organization's new chief, Audrey Azoulay, a former French culture minister, shares her vision for reviving UNESCO after the U.S. and Israel have announced their withdrawal.

In front of Jerusalem's Damascus Gate in May 2018
In front of Jerusalem's Damascus Gate in May 2018
Marc Semo

PARIS After years of crisis and lethargy, UNESCO — the United Nations' agency in charge of education, culture and science — is showing small signs of revival. During a World Heritage Committee meeting last month in Manama, Bahrain, the texts regarding the historic preservation of the Old City and Walls of Jerusalem and of Hebron were unanimously ratified. And that included support from both the Israeli and Palestinian representatives.

This vote would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier. In July 2017, a first draft of the declaration which mentioned the heritage status of the Old City of Hebron had infuriated Israel. That same year, in October, Israel and the United States had announced their withdrawal from the UN agency — which will be effective at the end of 2018 — considered a symbol of the multilateralism abhorred by both Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The adoption of consensual texts creates a "win-win" situation, and all parties emerge stronger: by avoiding hostile rhetoric and reducing political tensions we put ourselves in a position to let UNESCO do much more to fulfill its mandate," explains to Le Monde the new head of the agency Audrey Azoulay.

Nine months after her surprise election last October, the former French culture minister can chalk up this first success — has no intention of stopping there. "Through our role as a facilitator, we give ourselves the possibility to act in favor of all parties," she adds.

UNESCO" Director-General Audrey Azoulay — Photo: Authueil

Each year, the issue of Jerusalem embodies all the tensions within this Paris-based organization, which was the first UN agency in 2011 to accept Palestine as a full member. The U.S. had stopped contributing financially to UNESCO, denouncing the agency's "systematic anti-Israeli bias," and the slate of its contributions peaked at $550 million in late 2017. "U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared, in announcing the withdrawal from UNESCO.

The subtle shift began to take form in April, well before the Manama meeting, when Azoulay worked out a draft declaration with her team. "My goal was to reach terms that were acceptable to everyone, even if they still had opposite views, so as to reopen a dialogue," she explains.

The European Union as well as the United States, although theoretically on its way out, support the new director. The toughest parts of the declaration criticizing "the occupying power" are appended. "At UNESCO we are below the radar, this allows us to do many things," says one member of the director's team. "The Palestinian and Israeli representatives have received a green light at the highest level."

The outgoing Israeli ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen said he welcomed "the new personality and the new energy brought by the new Director," adding that he was going to recommend his government reconsider its decision to withdrawal or "at least to postpone it for a year." These remarks are all the more surprising as they come from someone who was always quick to denounce the organization's resolutions which in the eyes of the Israeli's authorities use heritage protection as an excuse to deny any link between Judaism and its historic sites including Jerusalem.

The Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO Elias Sanbar is pleased as well. "The document clearly reaffirms the principle of maintaining Jerusalem and Hebron on the list of endangered heritage, which is essential," explains the Palestinian official. Sanbar welcomes the commitment made by Azoulay "who fully plays her part as an intermediary, with a perfect balance of the two parties." The art of diplomacy is to reconcile what, at first, seems irreconcilable.

Israel's change of heart could also influence the United States.

The new director-general of the organization is a graduate of l'ENA, the elite French private school created by Charles de Gaulle that has long trained the country's top political leaders and civil servants. Azoulay was nominated just a couple months before UNESCO was set to vote for its new leader, and most thought she had no chances of winning. The Arab countries felt it was their turn to run the organization and an ugly campaign was waged against her, which targeted her Jewish origins. She was ultimately elected thanks to divisions within the Arab representatives, as well as her widely acknowledged diplomatic skills and the constant support of French President Emmanuel Macron.

If Israel, acknowledging the risks of an empty-chair policy, decides not to leave UNESCO, it would be a key, symbolic victory for Azoulay. "All Israeli diplomats are in favor of staying part of UNESCO, but the issue is very delicate," notes a diplomat. "Can Israel distance itself from the U.S., which is firmly convinced about leaving?"

Israel's change of heart could also influence the United States, and prompt a postponement of its departure as well. This is the best-case scenario at UNESCO headquarters in central Paris. "Even if it is the least plausible option, it has now become a possible one."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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