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Lost in Washington? The Disappearing Director-General of UNESCO

The night of Dec. 12, with the sold-out closed-to-the-press gala dinner, Bokova as guest of honor, came and went. Not a peep about it from UNESCO. No press releases. No photos on the UNESCO site. Nothing in the press. Not a whisper to suggest Bokova was in Washington.

On Dec. 13, because I was writing about her visit, I set out to confirm that she had actually materialized in Washington. You might suppose that would be a fairly easy thing to do. She is, after all, the director-general of UNESCO. UNESCO has an amply staffed press office in Paris, and a liaison office at UN headquarters in New York. The UN has a UN Information Center in Washington. And I had the email address and phone number of the aide who had been ducking in and out of meetings to organize Bokova's Washington trip.

I began working my way through the list, starting with the Paris press office, to catch them before the office closed, six time zones ahead of the U.S. east coast. Got nothing but voicemail.

I phoned the UNESCO liaison office in New York, and was told by the staffer who answered the phone that she had no idea where the director-general was, and didn't know where her own office colleagues were, either. They had gone out, maybe to lunch. Call back in an hour. Or maybe an hour and a half.

I phoned the UN Information Center in Washington, and reached a congenial staffer who told me that he had no information on the schedule or whereabouts of the UNESCO director-general, apart from a notice that she would be in Washington on Dec. 13 (not on Dec. 12). He had received from UNESCO no further information on what she was doing, whom she was seeing, or when she was leaving. It seems that UN agencies are not expected to keep UN Information Centers informed of anything unless they are in the mood to do so.

Once again, I checked the UNESCO site. There was a press release dated Dec. 13 that mentioned Bokova, but it had nothing to do with her Washington trip. If anything, it implied she was elsewhere, maybe Paris, or Latin America. It was about her designation of a young Colombian social scientist as the winner of a prize for research on youth violence. This was beginning to feel like we'd entered the realms of Hitchcock's vanishing man in North by Northwest.

I was about to call the UNESCO aide, Papagiannis (who had been too busy organizing meetings for Bokova to disclose what meetings he was organizing), when I received an email from him, responding to one of my phone messages. It said only: "I got your call. Our meetings are very fluid. At the end of the visit there will be a press release, which you will have access to."

OK, so that amounted to confirmation from a UNESCO source that Bokova was indeed in Washington. Since then, UNESCO has posted on its site her speech at the Dec. 12 US/ICOMOS dinner, inviting the assembled guests to "think big."And the Paris press office, in response to another of my queries, has confirmed that Bokova was indeed there, in Washington, and delivered this address in person. But beyond that, "No press releases on this visit are planned at this point."

Perhaps there's nothing more going on here than the head of a U.S.-defunded UN agency enjoying the Washington sunshine and social life, in which case, Merry Christmas. Everyone needs a little time to unwind. But  this is unusual behavior, and given UNESCO's interest in getting hold once again of $79 million or more per year in U.S. tax dollars, at the expense to the U.S. not only of a lot of money, but of waiving America's own law and eroding the credibility of American policy that the Palestinians must arrive at statehood via a negotiated peace with Israel, this trip is worrying. What's UNESCO Director-General Bokova doing in Washington that is so fluid and so secret?

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)