Address by Mr Pall Pethursson

The Icelandic Minister of Social Affairs

UN Conference on Racism

in Durban


Madam President

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen

I should like to begin by thanking the United Nations for taking the initiative in discussing this topic. In many parts of the world, racism and xenophobia have been the causes of unrest and war, and throughout the ages people have been persecuted on account of their nationality, religion or skin colour. Unfortunately, while mankind has forged ahead in many fields, there has been little progress in this area. All too often, as more and more people move between countries, they meet with hostility from the local inhabitants, who regard them as a threat to the security of the jobs or to their culture.

In my view, governments have a duty to fight against racism and xenophobia. They must take carefully-planned measures, particularly in the fields of education, the health services and social services. These measures should promote better understanding, tolerance and respect on both sides between the newcomers and those among whom they live. It is essential to find ways to make it possible for immigrants to have a say in their own.affairs. Political parties must make special efforts to involve people of foreign origin in the politics of their adopted countries. Too often, lack of proficiency in the local language is a barrier to such involvement in the workings of a democratic society.

What I have mentioned applies in the internal, domestic, context, but we must not forget the significance of international organisations in this connection. Often, strife between nations can also be traced back to arrogance and a lack of tolerance towards other cultures. For peace and progress in the world as a whole, it is vital that the fight against racism and xenophobia should be fought on all fronts.

We must not forget that no one is born a racist. Racism is a state of mind that is brought about in impressionable young people by the hints and attitudes to which we adults expose them, both consciously and unconsciously. This is why I believe it is extremely important to try to foster an attitude of tolerance in children straight away when they are of kindergarten age. We must try to use the opportunities that kindergarten offers to open children's eyes to the plurality of the world and the idea that no one culture or religion is superior to another.

I believe it is important that new immigrants should be able to maintain their own culture while adapting to that of their new country. It is very important to give immigrant children the opportunity of cultivating their mother tongue, since this is likely to give them a positive self image and enable them to tackle the adaptation to a new society. I am of the opinion that all efforts that we put into building up the confidence and competence of our immigrant communities will be richly repaid in benefits to our society as a whole. In this way we acquire bilingual individuals who are familiar with more than one cultural dimension.

Until recently, Iceland was an unusually uniform homogenois society in this respect, but the situation is now changing and the number of people of foreign origin in Iceland is rising rapidly. For a number of years now, in collaboration with the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Red Cross, Iceland has invited a group of refugees to Iceland every year. These groups have been located in small communities in the rural areas. In all cases, they have been made welcome and the process of adaptation to Icelandic society has gone smoothly.

Various services have been established to meet the increase in the number of people of foreign origin in Iceland. It is worth mentioning that the state police has appointed a special representative where immigrants can voice their concern. The country has a small population of slightly under 280,000 and the national language, Icelandic, is virtually unknown anywhere outside the country. This means that teaching new immigrants Icelandic is one of the most important tasks we face, since a grasp of the language is a key factor in enabling immigrants to take part in Icelandic society.


An example of the measures we have taken to broaden Icelanders' understanding of other cultures is the publication of a guideline booklet for employees in the health services, with the title "A Meeting of Cultures ": The influence of religion, culture and heritage on human relations and treatment within the health services. These
guidelines stress the importance of respecting other people's religious faiths and cultural backgrounds.

As part of a campaign to try to eradicate racism, it has been decided to publish a booklet in many languages covering rights and obligations on the labour market and health and safety at work.

This is a new challenge for Icelanders, and it is important for us to look to other countries and learn from their experience. I am convinced that this conference will give us all much valuable information that will help us to understand the causes of racism better and to find new ways of fighting against it. To my mind, racism is a violation of fundamental human rights and an affront to the dignity of man.

Thank you.