Press Releases

SG/SM/7923
29 August 2001

SECRETARY-GENERAL, IN SALZBURG, STRESSES
LINK BETWEEN DIALOGUE AMONG CIVILIZATIONS,
DURBAN CONFERENCE AGAINST RACISM


NEW YORK, 28 August (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the "Salzburg Dialogue Among Civilizations", Salzburg, Austria:

It is a great pleasure to join you today for this event, which continues Austria's strong support for the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.

Your topic could not be more relevant. European nations, including Austria, are increasingly polyglot and multi-cultural. And throughout the world, contacts among peoples are intensifying as a result of globalization.

This event's timing is also perfect. Just three days from now, the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance opens in South Africa. I shall travel directly from Salzburg to South Africa.

The United Nations itself was created in the belief that dialogue can triumph over discord, that diversity is a universal virtue, and that the peoples of the world are far more united by their common fate than they are divided by their separate identities.

These terms -- civilizations, cultures -- are not constant or immutable facts of history. Rather, they are organisms in constant flux: always changing, growing, and adapting themselves to new times and new realities through interaction with each other.

Nor do they necessarily coincide with a particular religious belief. It is a gross oversimplification to speak of a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist civilization; doing so only creates boundaries where none need exist.

Indeed, generalizations about civilizations cannot stand the test of modern times. Migration, integration and technology are bringing different races, cultures and ethnicities closer together, breaking down old barriers and creating new realities. We are, as never before, the products of many influences. We live, as never before, with both the foreign and the familiar.

This is not to suggest that we cannot rightly take pride in our particular heritage or faith. We can and we should. But the notion that what is "ours" is necessarily in conflict with what is "theirs" is both false and dangerous. We can love what we are without hating what we are not.

In what sense, then is the dialogue among civilizations a useful concept?

First, it is an appropriate and necessary answer to the notion of an inevitable clash of civilizations. As such, it provides a vehicle for advancing cooperation.

Second, and most important, the dialogue can help us distinguish lies from facts, and propaganda from sound analysis. This can be especially helpful in uncovering the real grievances that lie at the heart of conflict.

The Balkans over the past decade have provided us with grim and tragic examples of the uses and misuses of history to further division and conflict. There, what could be termed a dialogue among civilizations that had taken place for centuries was violently destroyed. In this case, a clearer understanding of history, culture, and religion could have helped to smooth the difficult transition from communism to democracy. Genuine issues of rights and responsibilities could have been addressed in an environment based on mutual respect.

In the Middle East, delicate issues of territory, nationhood, and ownership have been rendered even more complex by religious differences, centred on a land holy to three faiths. In this case, dialogue could help to disentangle the so-called civilizational and religious questions from the political and territorial, so as to find answers and compromises that would honour all faiths.

I do not mean to suggest that there are not profound and very real issues of security, self-determination and dignity at stake. But a dialogue of words and deeds -- that is, of reciprocal actions based on a genuine appreciation for the other side’s grievances -- can make a difference in finding a path to lasting peace.

Ideally, we would not wait until we are in the thick of conflict to begin this kind of dialogue. We would start it whenever and wherever we have the chance -- wherever communal tensions are emerging, wherever deprivation exists, wherever people are engaged in the admittedly challenging task of living together.

That is a big part of the rationale behind the World Conference against Racism. We want to reinvigorate the fight against intolerance -- with legal measures, with education, with economic and social development. And we want to do so well before grievances and prejudice spiral out of control and people find themselves on the battlefield, in conflicts they neither want nor can afford to fight.

The Conference is a call to action. Intolerance around the world is as widespread as it is pernicious.

But our challenge is not just to diagnose the disease. We must treat it.

We cannot dismiss discrimination as an unavoidable aspect of human nature. Just as people can be taught to hate, so can they learn to treat others with dignity and respect.

Nor can we accept intolerance as a predictable by-product of poverty, injustice or poor governance. It is well within our power to change such conditions.

Nor can we afford to ignore inflammatory rhetoric on the grounds that words can do little real harm. Hostile rhetoric is all too often the precursor to hostile acts, and hostile acts have a way of escalating into violence, conflict, and worse.

All of us need to join this battle. Governments can ensure that constitutional, legislative and administrative guarantees are in place. They are also best placed to tackle the problems that fuel intolerance, such as unemployment. Presidents and prime ministers should lead the national dialogue on these issues.

Education, of course, has a central role to play. But education is not just a matter for schools. Some countries have taken special measures to integrate immigrant journalists into national and regional broadcasting enterprises. The business community can raise public awareness through its hiring and other practices. And education must begin at home; after all, that is where many racist attitudes have their origins.

There is a clear international dimension to this effort. United Nations treaties have often served as the basis for national laws. Our development work, peacekeeping operations, human rights programmes and humanitarian assistance all have the principle of equality at their core.

Some of the most important work at the moment is being done by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. With recent convictions for genocide, rape, war crimes and crimes against humanity, we are seeing important steps for accountability and against impunity. It is my great hope that the Statute for the International Criminal Court will soon have the 60 ratifications required for it to enter into force, so that the Court can take its place in the international legal system.

I hope Austria will be active at the Durban Conference, sharing with other nations its experiences in responding to discrimination and intolerance.

The Conference will aim to produce a declaration and a programme of action with specific, forward-looking, and practical recommendations on how governments and civil society can rid the new century of the racism that so scarred the last one.

To do so, we will need to look unflinchingly at ourselves and the flaws in the societies we have built. The Conference will also have to confront the past, but most importantly it must help set a new course against racism for the future.

Alongside the world's rich variety of civilizations, cultures and groups, there is also, I believe, a global civilization that we are called on to defend and promote as we embark on a new century.

It is a civilization defined by its insistence on universal human rights and freedoms, its tolerance of dissent, and its belief in the right of people everywhere to have a say in how they are governed.

It is a civilization based on the belief that diversity is something to be celebrated, not feared. Indeed, many wars stem from people's fear of those who are different from themselves. Only through dialogue can such fears be overcome.

The United Nations, at its best, can be a forum where the dialogue among civilizations can flourish and bear fruit in every field of human endeavour. In early December, the General Assembly will convene a special session on the dialogue that offers another good opportunity to continue the battle against stereotyping and misconceptions, and for mutual understanding and reconciliation.

The dialogue must continue beyond this special year. Indeed, one of the main lessons of the United Nations' first half-century is that without such a dialogue taking place every day, within and among all nations, no peace can be lasting, and no prosperity can be secure. I look forward to working with you as we try to give real meaning to the word dialogue, and as we try to find the path of lasting, peaceful coexistence.

Thank you very much.

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