The importance of UNESCO: a last interview with Jaroslava Moserova

Jaroslava Moserova, who died from cancer on 24th March at 76, was one of the most widely respected Czech public figures. Following the fall of communism, she became well known for her work as a diplomat and then as a prominent Czech politician. With her perfect English, learned as a teenager in the United States just after the Second World War, she was often interviewed by Radio Prague. One little known aspect of her work in recent years was in UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, where she was appointed president of the General Conference in 1999. She was convinced of the useful role that UNESCO could play in the post-Cold War world, especially in education, and just two weeks before she died she talked to David Vaughan about her work for the organization.

Jaroslava Moserová | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International
"The aim of UNESCO is to improve the quality of life. It is not a political organization at all, but it is not only science, education and culture, but also democracy, that UNESCO promotes. Most people associate it mainly with the cultural heritage, but this is a mistake. It is important, of course, but the main pillar of UNESCO is education, access to education. When you hear the delegates from different parts of the world, different cultures, different traditions, there is one thing all of them agree on, and that is that the only tool for better or worse is education."

And how did you become involved initially in UNESCO?

"My first act that had something to do with UNESCO was right after the Velvet Revolution, when I - together with two other women - wrote a letter to the minister of culture, to speed up the process of getting Prague listed on the UNESCO heritage list, lest we spoil the city. And I think we saved it. I think that UNESCO really prevented some architectural crimes."

From this aspect of preserving the cultural heritage, you rapidly moved on to further aspects of UNESCO's work.

"I do share with my other colleagues a belief that access to education is most important, especially in Africa, because there are enormous areas where there are illiterate people with no access to any kind of information, and the only way to improve the economic situation in such places - also in some places in Asia and South America - is for the people to get at least basic education and basic skills."

And what practically is being done in the field of education?

"For instance, I keep supporting and promoting the spending of money to establish municipality radios. In areas where people are illiterate, the spoken word is the only way of getting information across to the people, vital information like how to prevent AIDS infection, where to get medical help, where to get basic education - only the spoken word, nothing else, not even pictures will help people who are not used to reading pictures or taking them in."

And so UNESCO helps to provide the framework and the know-how to make these municipal radio stations work.

"Yes, exactly. UNESCO always cooperates with the country concerned. That country has to express a wish to have this or that, but the countries are also encouraged to develop, for instance, a network of radio stations. In areas where it has already been introduced, it really works."

Since the fall of communism UNESCO has focused more on democracy and the principles of democracy. As somebody from a previously communist country, what did you try to bring in to the General Conference as president, from your experience of having lived through totalitarianism?

"I think I did not bring so much to the General Conference as to the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations. It sounds uninteresting but in fact it is the committee which deals with gross violations of human rights. And it is very important that I am there and that my Hungarian colleague is there, because it is important to have members who experienced totalitarian regimes, yet are free to talk about it now and know how to interpret the letters from the governments, which are so similar, no matter if the government is far left or far right."

How do you deal with these cases, with these governments? It must be a very difficult path to tread if you want to help the people they are imprisoning.

"If you have experience of how a totalitarian regime functions, how it reacts and how far you can go, then it is much easier to cope. But the main value of this committee as compared to others - because there are many agencies dealing with human rights - is that it deals strictly confidentially. So when a totalitarian country releases a prisoner of conscience, or improves prison conditions, or allows a discriminated group of young people to enter university, no-one brags about it, there is not a single word in the media about it, so that the country concerned does not lose face at home or internationally."

And you have a background as a diplomat. This must help enormously in this kind of very delicate negotiation.

"Also I have a good knowledge of people, which is important."

Do you think, worldwide, that respect for human rights is improving? There was a wave of optimism with the fall of communism and totalitarian regimes. Are you generally optimistic?

"Yes, because I was on the committee that I care so much about before I became president of the General Conference, and now I have come back again. I can see a slow, small move towards democracy in a number of countries, where you would not expect it at all. Where there was no dialogue before there is dialogue now, and we have had releases from places you would not believe."

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Can you name countries where there has been a significant improvement?

"I can tell you a story, but I cannot tell you where it happened. There was a case of a prisoner who was sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment under very harsh conditions in a far away country. Gradually, as we applied pressure, prison conditions improved very much. The person in question could receive books - reading material - she could even receive food parcels from her family. She was moved from a windowless cell to a cell with a window. She was allowed walks in the yard.

"My colleagues from the democratic countries that never went through what we went through said, 'So what.' They didn't think these concessions were great, but I realized, in that particular case in that particular country, how enormous these concessions were and I said, that this is a country that it would be worthwhile to visit and see what one could achieve. So I went, and I was afraid that I would be introduced to the local national commission for UNESCO, shown the sites and sent home. It could have happened, and never again would a visit to the country be approved of.

"But no - I was received by three government members, the last one being the most important one, as I was told, and he held a long speech, where he explained the difficult situation of his multi-ethnic country, and that they are working on a democratic constitution, but they had to move slow, because if there was a drastic change, it would be bloody. I believe he was right - taking into consideration all the facts of the country I would think he was right. At the end of his speech he said, 'As far as the matter you are interested in is concerned, it will be discussed.' That was all. No names mentioned - nothing. Then I held a long speech: that our countries have a very different cultural and political background and traditions, and that our opinions of course differ, but that there are things we could learn from them, as for instance respect for old age. And at the end of my speech I said that I trust in the generosity of his government.

"That person was released in ten days. Even now I have goose-flesh when I think about it - in ten days. It was of course understood by both sides that there will be no press conference, nothing. Silence."

When I spoke a while ago to another diplomat and writer of Czech origin, Viktor Fischl, he told me that one of the things he has had to do in his work both as a writer and diplomat is to try to think himself into the position of the person sitting at the other end of the table. In the case of totalitarian countries, can you really sympathize with the politicians with whom you are talking?

"I cannot sympathize, but I can understand, which is a difference. In the case that I was just talking about, I really believe that the minister who was saying how they could not afford an abrupt change towards democracy was right."