A vote for a key leadership post has sparked controversy at UNESCO because one candidate works for a billionaire with a money-laundering conviction and the other is from politically volatile Argentina.
The UN's Paris-based cultural agency is to choose on Friday the new chairperson of its 58-nation executive board, a body that holds the key power of recommending who the agency should choose as its overall leader.
And rarely has a vote caused so much talk – or so many whispers – in the corridors of an organisation where even disapproval is usually expressed in strict compliance with diplomatic protocol.
"UNESCO has become the house of rumours," one diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity, while another pointed to a "climate of anxiety" ahead of the vote.
It is one of the most important posts at the UNESCO, in part because one of the executive board's roles is to recommend to the organisation's member states a successor to Director-General Audrey Azoulay, whose second four-year term ends in late 2025.
Two candidates are in the running to head the executive board – Vera El-Khoury Lacoeuilhe, a French-Lebanese diplomat, backed by the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia, and Marcela Losardo, Argentina's ambassador to UNESCO and former justice minister.
Both candidacies have generated controversy in the race that is to be decided by vote of the executive board's members.
The chairmanship of the executive board rotates on a regional basis and is due to go to Latin American and Caribbean countries.
'Ideals of the United Nations'
Critics, who frown on Lacoeuilhe's candidacy, point to the 64-year-old's work for Gilbert Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire of Lebanese descent.
Chagoury, who wears many hats, is Saint Lucia's ambassador to UNESCO, and Lacoeuilhe serves as his deputy.
An ambassador accredited to the Paris-based organisation told AFP that Chagoury, a one time advisor to the late Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, sought his post at UNESCO to "enjoy diplomatic immunity."
AFP sought Chagoury's comment, but he was not immediately reachable.
Chagoury's past includes a money-laundering conviction in Switzerland in 2000. According to the details of the case, he was convicted of laundering some of the money stolen from Nigeria and agreed to give US$66 million back to the African nation.
In 2021, the United States also fined him US$1.8 million for making illegal campaign contributions to US presidential and congressional candidates.
Despite repeated AFP requests, Lacoeuilhe was not available for an interview.
In 2017, the French-Lebanese diplomat was Lebanon's candidate for UNESCO's top post, but the job eventually went to Azoulay.
At the time she described herself as a "woman of consensus" who is "strongly committed to the ideals of the United Nations."
UNESCO allows member states to be represented by a candidate of their own choice, even if they are neither a national nor a diplomat from that country.
Some diplomats criticise the practice – used by several small states, mainly in the Caribbean, with one ambassador calling it a "mercenary" system.
The ambassador, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, pointed out that Lacoeuilhe "is not attached to the government of Saint Lucia, nor to UNESCO, but only to Gilbert Chagoury."
Given Chagoury's controversial profile, many saw the candidacy of Losardo, Argentina's ambassador to UNESCO, as a safe bet until the country elected Javier Milei as its new president on Sunday.
The image of Milei, who sometimes campaigned by waving a chainsaw from the stage, stands in stark contrast with the values of UNESCO, some insiders say.
Nicknamed 'El loco' ("madman"), Milei is opposed to abortion, in favour of cutting spending on education and science, and says people should be allowed to sell their organs freely.
While José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, the Spanish ambassador to UNESCO, still supports Losardo's "excellent" candidacy, another European ambassador says that her chances of getting elected have been "affected."
A spokesman for a Western delegation at UNESCO was more blunt, saying Losardo "doesn't stand much of a chance."
"It was already a tight race," said another diplomat. "Milei's win has increased Saint Lucia's chances tenfold," added the diplomat, fearing that Lacoeuilhe's victory could lead to "reputational damage" for the UN agency.
Three diplomats told AFP they hoped Losardo, 65, would drop out of the race. "Argentina's aura is compromised," said one of them.
Some pin their hopes on the last-minute emergence of a new candidate, possibly from Brazil, to avoid an embarrassing outcome.
Speaking to AFP, Losardo said she had "no intention of giving up."
"A change of government does not mean that a candidate loses her qualities," she said. "I'm still the solution and I'm going to win."
by Joris Fioriti & Toni Cerdà, AFP