Ban warns of cultural dimension in world conflicts, urging ‘unlearning’ of stereotypes

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon holds press conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

28 May 2010 – With three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts having a cultural dimension, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called for accelerated steps to bridge the divides, from eliminating feelings of racial or religious superiority to “unlearning” stereotypes.

“In communities where symbols of religious minorities are seen as something to oppose or fear, we need continued engagement,” he told the Alliance of Civilizations, a five-year-old Spanish-Turkish initiative set up under UN auspices to overcome prejudice among nations, cultures and religions, as it opened its third forum in Rio de Janeiro.

“In places where people are screened out of opportunity because of race, faith or even their name, we have more work to do,” he said while praising the Alliance – which now includes 100 Member States – for work already accomplished in a bid to break down barriers such as bringing journalists together from around the globe to confront prejudice and misunderstanding, including the first-of-its-kind joint reporting from Israel and the Arab world.

The Alliance has also expanded dialogue for young people of different ethnicities in Burundi, scene of decades of ethnic violence that killed tens of thousands of people, promoted mediation and conflict resolution in South Asia, mentored in immigrant neighbourhoods in Europe and provided jobs for young people throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

“All this is impressive. But it is only a start. The Alliance is a process, a work in progress,” Mr. Ban declared, stressing the need to find answers “to some of the most urgent issues of our day: How do we build inclusive societies? How can we strengthen education and empower women? How do we drown out the siren songs that divert young people to extremism?”

He underscored the prime importance of education, stressing that education is more than learning. “Sometimes it is also unlearning,” he said. “We must let go of the stereotypes of the monolithic ‘other.’ We must put an end to labels that do more to divide than define.”

Turning to globalization, which can both connect and alienate, he warned that “fears and hatred are just a mouse click away.”

The gains of globalization are more visible – but so, too, is the feeling among many that those benefits are out of reach, he added. “In many places around the world, such fears cause people to retreat away from ‘globalization’ into an extreme ‘localization’ – one that sends the message: ‘Our way is best.’ Or worse, ‘There is no other way but my way.’”

He noted that all too often division sells. “It wins votes. It gets ratings. It is much easier to blame others than to think for oneself,” he said, calling for greater understanding that “we are a single global family with many members and no monoliths. “We are not there yet. The journey is long.”

Several hundred political and business leaders and representatives of civil society are attending the two-day forum, during which UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova and Mr. Ban’s High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, Jorge Sampaio, signed an agreement setting goals for the next two years with a particular focus on intercultural exchanges among the young.

“The diversity of the world’s cultures is our wealth and our future,” Ms. Bokova said ahead of the forum. “It is high time to increase our investment in cultural diversity and dialogue for development. This is long term work. The challenges are great but the rewards are greater.”

Following the opening of the Forum, the Secretary-General met with Brazil’s President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and, separately, with other dignitaries attending the event.


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