Koichiro Matsuura dubbed "saviour of Unesco"

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, Matsuura explains his reform of Unesco and the return of the US to membership after nearly 20 years

Koichiro Matsuura, 62, has been christened the “saviour of Unesco” and this is no understatement. Determined, as Director General of Unesco, to adapt the organisation to the needs of the real world, he has managed to restructure it completely in the last three years.

Today Unesco not only displays more dynamism, efficiency and financial transparency— “accountable to all State holders”—than has been seen since its foundation in 1945, but it has also persuaded the US to return to membership. This had been a goal since the US resigned in 1985 citing “disagreement over management and information issues”.

Despite a 30-year international career as a diplomat, Mr Matsuura remains very Japanese: his constant smile, his directness of speech, his elegant manners, distant and precise, and his structured thinking.

Mr Matsuura is as skilled a strategist and administrator as he is a negotiator, with a very precise vision of the future. He declares himself a Romantic in the 19th-century manner and professes his personal belief in “peace culture”, a favourite Unesco theme.

The Art Newspaper: By “peace culture” do you simply mean a matter of good intentions?

Koichiro Matsuura: As a boy in Japan I witnessed the end of the conflict that scarred the 20th century and this marked my life. I lived two hours away from Hiroshima, where the bombs fell. I saw the fear, death, pain; the sky with the flash of nuclear light. Two years later I went to Tokyo and apart from the imperial palace, everything had been reduced to rubble. That was a lesson in horror. It showed me the consequences of unfortunate military politics. For those of us who survived that ordeal, words of peace, of the resolute pursuit of tolerance, of universal disarmament, of the effort to channel human capabilities into the service of education, science, communication and culture, can never ring hollow.

TAN: President Bush has finally confirmed that the US is rejoining Unesco. What do you think persuaded him?

KM: This was a great piece of news. The US needed to be sure that Unesco worked properly. At the time when they left there was no clarity in the system and one cannot give funds if there are no results. But it was vital they return in order to restore faith in a multilateral system.

The US responded very positively to the reforms made over the last three years, which have restored our credibility.

The other persuasive factor was that Unesco is more prepared than ever. Since 11 September, it has encouraged intercultural and interdisciplinary exchanges and fostered co-operation in essential areas such as bioethics, cyberspace, new technologies and information. This makes the organisation a vital centre where the international community can conduct a constructive dialogue between civilisations and forestall new conflicts.

The US is member 188. It was one of the founding member States that helped create the 1945 constitution. What American life symbolises is an extraordinary cultural diversity.

TAN: What were the most important reforms you put in place?

KM: When I had the honour to become Director General of Unesco in 1999, the member States gave me two main tasks: to make the organisation's activity more relevant and increase its efficiency.

To do this I embarked on improvements in structure, management, and the reorganisation of sectors in charge of programmes. I had to face many conflicting demands. The most obvious was the need to reconcile financial rigour and the call for rapid modernisation.

The first two years were hard as they were dedicated to wide-scale reform and staff cuts, without additional finance, but it was a necessary preliminary stage. I made the workings of the secretariat simpler and more rational, did away with job duplication, established clear hierarchical lines so that structures should serve the programmes and not the reverse. In this way I introduced a modern system of internal control, the first steps towards the installation of responsibility at all levels. Another key element was the reform of bodies outside headquarters.

TAN: This month, in Venice, the World Heritage Convention is celebrating its 30th anniversary. What are its priorities?

KM: We have to discuss not only the achievements but also the running and future of the convention and at the same time protect a heritage that should represent universal values.

An area calling for urgent action is underwater heritage; we need member States to ratify our convention that prohibits pillage and destruction by commercial exploitation. Jerusalem and Afghanistan are priority areas. It [the meeting] is being held in Venice because the Italian government invited us and because Venice is clearly one of the vital world heritage sites.

TAN: And yet the Unesco office in Venice has stated it is not interested in the city of Venice but in other places.

KM: That is not so. What has happened is that, although there are 188 member countries and 90 different cultures, half the list of cultural world heritage sites is from Europe, and Unesco has to take account of those that are under-represented.

There is an increasingly marked imbalance in favour of northern countries and an effort must be made to look at non-European countries. This is one of the reasons for protection of the non-material heritage.

TAN: The non-material or intangible heritage is one of the concepts you have introduced. What is it exactly?

KM: To maintain cultural diversity it is important to protect not only monuments of the past but also the knowledge and meaning of such cultural expressions as traditional theatre, music, epics, rituals and lore—all that relates to the oral heritage, which is hugely rich in the southern countries. It is a living but non-material culture and represents a vital element of cultural identity. Its disappearance is one of the negative aspects of globalisation.

When I put the idea forward, almost no country responded positively, but I saw it very clearly, perhaps because of the tradition of Noh theatre in Japan. Finally, on 19 May 2001, the first non-material works of world heritage were announced. It was a moving and important moment.

A few examples are the language and dances of Garifuna in Belize, the Gelede oral material of Benin, the Kunqu opera of China, the polyphonic chant of Georgia, the Sanskrit theatre of Kutiyattam in India, the Sicilian puppet theatre of the Opera dei Pupi, and the cultural space of the Jemaa el-Fna square in Morocco.

TAN: Your concern for the non-material heritage comes, no doubt, from being a great reader; you have strong faith in the power of poetry.

KM: I believe poetry has a vital human dimension and is crucial to progress. Generally speaking, I have great faith in the potential of science and technology in the future, but the 20th century has showed us that many, many mistakes have been committed in its name. Humankind's great error is to have used science and technology in the wrong direction, with no ethical considerations. And because of this I prefer a culture that encompasses poetry and ethics, along with science and technology.

TAN: The quality of tourism has declined; some say it is poisoning the world. Do you not think rules need to be imposed?

KM: I have a horror of normal tourism; I support cultural tourism, that is to say, a more educated and less abundant tourism. An excess of visits is simply a risk of invasion; the quotas in Venice, for example, are necessary. A code of behaviour for tourism needs to be established.

TAN: What kind of code?

KM: First, there has to be greater awareness of what world heritage is, starting with education in schools.

To appreciate the site, to respect the advice given in each place such as not to go near or not to touch. I have many times seen marks on monuments...but the pressing thing is to instil the importance of culture in young people.

TAN: Two of your chief priorities have to do with the recovery of Afghan culture, and with Israel and Palestine.

KM: Afghanistan, which has been through a very dramatic time, is experiencing a rebirth, rediscovering its ancient spiritual roots. It was a country of exchange and dialogue between civilisations, races and religions. They are now looking anew for their national identity and there is a huge task ahead.

This needs a great deal of humility, conviction and hope. Culture is the prime foundation. I fervently believe that a country is alive when its culture is alive. When the Buddhas were destroyed, after all the efforts to prevent this, I wept inwardly at the barbarity. We are going to help restore the Kabul museum, a source of national pride that will house heritage objects from all over the country. Furthermore, the authorities have made education the chief priority.

TAN: And where does Jerusalem come in?

KM: The heritage of humankind is above all a given moment of history that unites many influences and sources of inspiration, a symbol of identity both common and plural. So an international appeal has been launched for the protection of Jerusalem and I have worked out a special plan to conserve its endangered heritage setting all political considerations aside. Its art, spirituality and history concern humankind as a whole.

TAN: “Education for all” is Unesco’s great call. By when? Is it a real aim given the north-south differences?

KM: In 2000, at the Convention of Development and Culture, we adopted six aims. One was that basic primary education, up to the age of 15 for everyone, should be a reality in 2015.

This is the key to the future, the hope for employment and social emancipation. Basic education not only promotes tolerance but is directly linked to the escape from poverty. Education means opportunities.

The difficulty in achieving this is that one has to reinforce the political will, mobilise the technical and financial resources of civil society. At present civil participation is very disappointing.

There is a great gap, between the new scribes, masters of technology and computers, who have managed to redefine the new tools of information and culture, and the masses who do not know how to use them—it is the rise of the “new illiterate”. But we have not yet fully addressed this problem.

TAN: In a world that is so complex, are there any universal ideals for education?

KM: Quality of education is hard to measure and quality is also a concept that has changed over time. But there are certain ideal values such as the importance of culture, the value of democracy and human rights, the culture of peace and respect for others, tolerance and, latterly, the need to preserve the environment. Then one has to adapt the contents to cultural contexts, to the specific situation.

I also give great importance to sport. Body and mind are one. A good spirit cannot develop without good health so physical education in primary school underpins everything.

TAN: Unesco has many dreams and fine ideas, but does it have actual power?

KM: Unesco’s authority is questioned all the time. Its actual power is determined by the will of the member States and the will of the national authorities; Unesco alone cannot make anything happen. It needs their agreement. In this sense it can indeed be said that it has no actual power and because of this I sometimes have the feeling that we advance very slowly.

It is very difficult, particularly for developed countries, to accept new ideas. Most countries are not open, it is hard for them to understand and they show reluctance. An example was my proposal for non-material heritage, but I believe it is a question of patience, of clearly putting on show specific examples.

TAN: With so many aims to be achieved in so many fields, do you sometimes feel frustrated at the lack of progress?

KM: I sometimes feel frustrated, not because of having many objectives and projects, but because of the negative reactions to my proposals.

Interview by Cristina Carrillo

The international congress “World Heritage: shared legacy, common responsibility”, organised by Unesco will be at the Cini Foundation, Venice, 14-16 November. E-mail

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Saviour of Unesco?'