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Russian cultural layer

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Russian cultural layer


Mikhail Gusman

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO. Photo credit:

This year marks 65th anniversary since Russia joined UNESCO. Before her official visit to Russia, Audrey Azoulay, the Director General of the UNESCO, spoke about priority activities and future of this largest international organization.

Which issues will be the core ones for your conversations in Moscow?

This visit is very important for UNESCO and for me personally. Russia is a great country, which is an important pillar of our organization and its active participant. During the visit, I will be privileged to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discuss with him such topics as multilateralism and the UNESCO’s role in solving challenges of the modern world. We will also touch upon issues of bilateral cooperation - a very rich and historic one, which has been developed by the organization and Russia.

Then I am going to Tatarstan, a republic with wonderful traditions, where I have never been before. I have meetings with the authorities there, with the head of the Republic, Rustam Minnikhanov. Also, I will be glad to open the congress, which brings together all UNESCO departments in Russia, and they are numerous, because there is the legacy cooperation in the field of higher education between this country and UNESCO.

This year marks 65th anniversary since Russia joined UNESCO. What is your opinion on prospects for partnership? Which UNESCO programs in Russia do you consider to be the most relevant?

Indeed, Russia is very active in all the areas of UNESCOs work, including exchange programs in education, science, culture, communication and information, as well as oceanography. For example, we cooperate in educational field, and we can collaborate even more in application of new technologies, in the field of artificial intelligence. We also work together in the realm of culture, in particular, preserving cultural and spiritual heritage throughout the world. Russia initiated the UNESCO Basic Sciences Programme. We cooperate in the area of ecology, hydrology, and oceanography. We have the Research Oceanographic Commission. By the way, its secretary is a Russian specialist. Russia was the founder in this field.

The UNESCO motto reads, "Building peace in the minds of men and women." How do you think it can be achieved?

UNESCO was founded after the Second World War, when the world had already seen that science and culture could be subordinated to the destructive projects nurtured by Nazism. It was a moral disaster. Men and women came together to say that science and culture should never be separated from humanistic ideals. And challenges that UNESCO faces today are different from those that the organization faced in 1945. I think it is impossible to build a world without education and culture.

Education is a tool that allows everyone to designate their own destiny, and in the last 20 years immense progress has been achieved in this direction. We still need to overcome a great deal ahead, in particular, to manage full-scale enrollment in education. At present, there are 750 million adults in the world that can neither write nor read, one third of them are women, and one hundred million children do not attend school. For me, education is an essential pre-condition of peace; violence and conflicts arise when education is absent. That is why our first mission relates to education.

In your opinion, what achievements of UNESCO have been the most important in recent years? What is the future of the organization?

In my opinion, our role is to bring together all members of our organization and define our common interest and major challenges of this age, and obviously the main one is environment. Moreover, we face the task to prevent radicalization, and this goal should be achieved through education, culture, as well as by searching for answers to technological challenges.

We are on the threshold of the unprecedented technological revolution. We have got a sense of digital technologies, but now we are facing the problem of artificial intelligence. And this will have a huge impact on life of society, including the UNESCO mandate, as well as on what the future of education will be. It is necessary to answer the question of how to apply artificial intelligence to make progress in education, preserve cultural heritage, so such technologies are used to the betterment of mankind. Those are the challenges that we face today, and the UNESCO mandate is very important to resolve them.

Which of nowadays problems do you consider to be the core one? How can UNESCO contribute into its solution?

If only one priority to be chosen, then this should be education and once again education, since only through education the world can be led to one shared conflict-free future. Today, unfortunately, there are so many conflicts. And education for women and girls should be an engine in the transformation of the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the problem of access to education for women and girls remains a factor of inequality. We must get our acts together, because if we want to overcome nowadays challenges, women have to be involved in the process. And such requirement applies to all areas, including science. This is where Russia sets an example - it has many outstanding female scientists.

Taking the office of the UNESCO Director General, you said that the primary objectives included countering extremism, violence, as well as elimination of illiteracy and environmental protection. How would you evaluate the results achieved? What still has to be done?

I think that this is an issue of fighting extremism, fighting radicalization. It happens in all parts of the world in different ways. Efforts are required to work on mentality of people, especially young ones. It is necessary to begin with fundamental principles; in particular, they have to be integrated into society through education. And it seems to me, the integration shall be regulated mostly by culture. Because we often learn that the most extremist-minded people are those who have been cut off from their own culture. You need to know your culture, know your origin, appreciate it and be proud of it. One must also learn to take interest in (cultures) of others, to reciprocate and get to know them. And we work to achieve it.

I believe that education, in general, possesses power to fight racism, anti-semitism. This is what we stated in Paris, as well as during the last General Assembly of the United Nations. First of all, we want to show that this issue should be resolved in education realm, in the battle for minds. And we also have to work, to help teachers and professors who are sometimes exposed to racism or anti-semitism, and violence in their classes. In my opinion, a long-term answer can be given through education, and currently we are trying to develop tools to support the educational community. This is just one of many examples.

What is your assessment of loss in Syrias cultural potential, and what ways to restore preserve the cultural heritage do you see?

Events in Syria today are tragic. They are tragic, first of all, for the Syrians: I think about hundreds of thousands of victims, as well as of those who were expelled, who are outside of the country now and really want to come back. And obviously they were tragic for the cultural heritage, which, often was attacked intentionally and in full view. It became targets as historical symbols, since the Syrian heritage is, of course, the heritage of the Syrians; however it is also the heritage of humanity. And it, by the way, was recognized as such in the World Heritage List (UNESCO). The list includes six sites from Syria that have been recognized as the world heritage of humanity.

The major priority for UNESCO is education and once again - education.

Today the international community supported by the UN has not yet fully deployed works on the ground in Syria, but we have already commenced our activities. We have been preparing since the work to be performed is immense. For example, we have been training Syrian technicians in our overseas offices. We also have been working on something absolutely fundamental - on assessing damages to understand what happened, what damages were caused, what kind of restoration work are required. For example, I reflect on what has to be done in the old city of Aleppo. We plan to publish an item about using UAVs and artificial intelligence in our work, so when we are able to commence it on the ground to the full extend, such integral elements will be available to us. And I hope that this will happen pretty soon, because the need is huge.

A very close region in Iraq can be an example of the site, where the international community has returned to for good. And we do work with the entire international community. It provided support to us in reconstruction, and even more than reconstructing, reviving, as we say, the spirit of Mosul in Iraq, which can be pretty much considered to be a heritage, as well as its cultural life and education. I think those are the sites that are waiting for help from the international community to be able to bring people back to their homes.

In your opinion, what is the mass medias role in the modern world and in international relations? How can the media be of help for UNESCO, and how can your organization help the media?

This is an important pillar of our organization, which is historically based on the fact that the initial UNESCO mandate has been associated with freedom of expression. Freedom of expression comes as a part of various areas and mainly relates to professional print media. We support work of journalists all over the world, for example, by encouraging governments to enact laws ensuring freedom of media, by educating journalists, especially on topical issues, such as artificial intelligence - this is a big topic now, or encouraging hatred, teaching children on relations with the media.

Now there are arduous discussions on what the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies will bring to our lives. What is UNESCOs position to such discussions?

As to my thinking, this is a topic that we all must master to some extent, since it is transforming our cities, our experts. The UNESCO mandate, as such, will change being affected by artificial intelligence: education will be different, and this is something you need to prepare for. Participating countries should share scientific knowledge in this regard. But you are right, the topic may be more sensitive and there will be the issue related to humanistic values, as well as values that we wish to preserve in this world of future technologies.

We should not admire technology as long as there are still questions to it; and at the same time we must use its best achievements in pursuing our common goals for the sake of well-being of whole mankind. We do our best to talk about technological ignorance and scientific knowledge; we exchange such knowledge between the North and the South, between different countries; as to ethical principles, we do just the same.

What values do we want to adhere to on this path? These are the values that may relate to a persons responsibility for application of artificial intelligence technologies. How to work together? There may be frameworks that are quite inclusive and representative in terms of human diversity. Issues of diversity have been discussed within the scope of the most technologically advanced subjects. How do we engage women in creation of AI of the future? Today there are hardly any of them in this industry.

Recently, several countries have left UNESCO. What is your assessment of the current situation? How does this affect the organization's finances? How does UNESCO intend to build further relations with those countries?

This is a very important question. I think that the issues we have been discussing concern everyone, and no one can escape responsibility. And no one can shirk responsibility, since it is the responsibility of the entire global community. I believe that withdrawal of two countries (the United States and Israel — the editors office of the Russkiy Mir), announced a year ago, is a regrettable event. This is a loss for them, but also for the global community. I would like them to return to the organization. Each country has its own place in UNESCO, its own way. Each of us should contribute to their decision. UNESCO continues its activities. We interact with the United States and Israel through the established dialogue with civil society, enterprises, and universities. So far we have been engaged in dialogue with the scientific community in 193 countries.

You run an organization that embraces as many countries as the UN! How do you cope with such huge responsibility, manage to follow extremely heavy agenda and resolve such diverse issues? How do you manage to do everything?

I like to be involved in solving major problems of our time. I have huge responsibility. I am proud that UNESCO is headed by a woman. The mission is so exciting!

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