H. E. Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga,
President of the Republic of Latvia
at the 3rd World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Durban, South Africa September 1, 2001
Madam High Commissioner,
Heads of State and Government,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am particularly pleased to be addressing you today at this Third World Conference, where Latvia is participating for the first time as an independent state. On behalf of my country, I take this opportunity to express our active and wholehearted support to the international effort to curb racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
These phenomena, alas, are widespread and enduring. Like prejudice, injustice and violence, they are part of human nature, but they need not be an inevitable part of it.
They stem in part from our biological heritage, for suspicion and mistrust arise out of the same arousal mechanisms as the wariness and alertness that allow the detection of danger. We have all been implanted with biologically programmed survival mechanisms for fight and flight, which sometimes can translate into the intense emotions of fear, hatred, and the impulse to destroy. We have also been implanted with an instinct for getting our own way, which among the strongest can easily translate into a thirst for power.
Yet we are not doomed by this heritage, for Nature can be shaped and modified by Nurture. Through training and upbringing, the human child acquires not just a consciousness but also a conscience.
Each culture faces the challenge of containing the aggressive, anti-social and exploitive tendencies among its members, of channelling them into socially acceptable outlets. Too often, this is done by forbidding aggression or oppression towards members of the in-group, but allowing it or even encouraging it toward nonmembers of the group.
Historically, such in-groups in human societies have been defined according to a variety of criteria: race, skin colour, religion, cultural traditions, ethnic origin, linguistic background, caste, social class, profession, gender or sexual orientation.
The formulation of in-groups and out-groups according to such criteria is the root cause of racism and other forms of intolerance and discrimination. It results in a simplistic and dualistic categorisation of humans into those who are deemed worthy of respect and equal treatment, and those who are not.
In extreme cases, such an a priori form of labelling can lead to a manipulation of how we define humanity itself: we are truly human, but they are not.
Slavery in one form or another, which has been practised in most parts of the world for millennia, is the classical example of such dehumanisation. One of the most horrifying and large-scale examples of dehumanisation took place in Europe less than six decades ago. This was the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich, culminating in the mass murders of the Holocaust as an extreme manifestation of xenophobia and intolerance.
Another odious form of dehumanisation, apartheid, entrenched itself here in our host country of South Africa shortly after the end of the Holocaust. The severe restriction of the rights of non-white South Africans went against the most fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Racial discrimination in one form or another has been practised in numerous parts of the world, and regrettably continues. to occur on an unofficial basis in many places to this very day.
Discrimination based on ethnicity, caste, class or military conquest has also been a prevalent phenomenon world-wide, including Europe. Latvia has suffered from various forms of it under foreign rule throughout the centuries. Under serfdom, Latvian peasants (like those of many other European countries) were practically slaves of their feudal land-lord. Under a variety of foreign occupations, Latvians were severely discriminated against. After a brief period of independence following 1918, the Second World War led to both Nazi German and Soviet Communist occupations.
The Soviets began their fifty-year era of totalitarian rule by labelling thousands of people as bourgeois reactionaries and enemies of the Revolution, simply for having lived in an independent Latvia as statesmen, parliamentarians, army officers, civil servants, professors, teachers, farmers, or shopkeepers. Many were killed and tortured, tens of thousands, including babies and young children, the sick and the old, were arrested in the middle of the night, loaded into cattle cars and deported to Siberia, in wave after wave of mass deportations.
In later years under Soviet rule in Latvia, one's social antecedents or the simple fact of having relatives in exile could be sufficient to block access to higher education, professional training, or just getting a job and a place to live. Under a systematic programme of russification, Latvians became a minority in many, parts of their own country, going from over 80% of the population in 1939 to just barely 50% by 1989.
The fates of such distant and distinct countries as Latvia and South Africa have taken remarkably similar turns, particularly during the last ten years, which have been a period of radical transformation and significant achievements for both of our nations.
Following its peaceful Singing Revolution and the collapse of Soviet rule, Latvia has experienced a rapid transition to a full-fledged democracy. In order to overcome the tragic legacy of half a century of totalitarian rule and encourage the development of an all-inclusive and open society, the Government of Latvia has placed high priority on issues of social integration. Our language law has been scrutinised and found in conformity with the highest of international standards. Our citizenship law is more open and liberal than that of Germany, for example.
Latvia feels deep solidarity with South Africa's efforts to eradicate the consequences of past injustices and to build a modem, civic society based on the rule of law, respect of human rights and the ideals of freedom. We value highly the outstanding leadership and personal contribution of President Thabo Mbeki in reconciling different parts of South African society and spearheading the remarkable development of this country.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Many of the countries participating in this Conference have suffered greatly as a result of past injustices. It is our duty to learn from the heavy legacy of our history, but our past must not overshadow our willingness to act with a view to the future. I firmly believe that it would not be productive to single out specific countries and ideologies for criticism, and therefore urge the participating countries in this Conference to refrain from doing so. Otherwise it will be difficult, if not impossible, for us to arrive at a common declaration by the end of this Conference.
What we must all agree upon are the principles on which the global fight against racism, discrimination and intolerance must be founded. The first and most fundamental of these is that of the sanctity of human life. It is not an easy principle to apply; yet without it, there is little hope of maintaining civilisation.
We must accept every human being's inalienable right to be considered as human, and to be treated according to the second fundamental principle, which is that of equality.
All people are created equal, not necessarily in their physical and intellectual abilities, but in their inherent value as human beings.
Oppression in all its forms, and especially long-standing armed violence against civilian populations should be of serious concern to the international community. But so should prejudice in all its forms, which starts with negative emotions: fear, distrust, resentment, anger, which then in turn lead to prejudiced or aggressive actions. The only way to eradicate prejudice and animosity is to cultivate their contraries: the positive emotions of empathy, sympathy, compassion, tolerance and understanding. This is a slow, difficult, and never-ending process, but it has to be done. If not, then the thirst for revenge or retribution only leads to endless cycles of violence, to vendettas that will never stop.
The challenge is to accept diversity and difference without being threatened by it. Diversity can be a source of mutual enrichment, rather than oppression, difference can be the basis of complementarity rather than confrontation. It is only by accepting the dignity of every other human being that we develop the true humanity within ourselves.
Then we can say - you are my brother, as I am your sister, for we are all children of the same primordial Mother, we are all members of the one human race.