UNESCO chief joins world leaders for historic unity march in wake deadly terrorist attacks in France

Photo: UNESCO/Pilar Chang-Joo

11 January 2015 – The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, participated in today's historic march for freedom and solidarity in Paris, held in the wake of the deadly terrorist assault on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, and after three days of subsequent attacks that killed 17 people in the country.

In a statement, the Director-General declared: “Beyond expressions of sympathy and solidarity, we must act. For UNESCO, this means, first, to continue supporting and advancing freedom of expression and of the press, fighting for the safety of journalists and against impunity.”

“We must bolster all our work in education, in promoting dialogue and understanding between cultures and religions,” Ms. Bokova goes on to say, underscoring that fanatical violence “reflects a perversion of the mind of its perpetrator, which can paralyze the thinking of those who are its victims, spreading fear, blocking all reasoning and facilitating simplistic assimilations.”

“As sectarian violence spreads through hate speech, through lies and the manipulation of religion, we must respond by fostering tools that enable young people to resist such manipulations, and this brings us back to the founding principle of UNESCO – since wars begin in the minds of men and women, we must build the defenses of peace in the minds of men and women.”

Press reports suggest that hundreds of thousands of people have poured onto the streets of Paris today amid heavy security in a massive show of unity and support. This follows the shocking attacks that began on Wednesday, 7 January, with a deadly assault by masked gunmen on the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo, and two subsequent hostage takings at a Jewish supermarket in Paris, and a print shop northeast of the French capital. Ultimately, 17 people were killed.

The horrific events drew strong condemnation from across the United Nations system, including from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who declared that while the attack was meant to divide, “this is a moment for solidarity. Around the world, we must stand strong for freedom of expression and tolerance and stand against forces of division and hate.”

In a statement issued later in the day by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban, who is on an official visit to India, welcomed the march and renewed his condolences to the families of the victims of the attacks in France over the past week. Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General's Special Envoy, represented the United Nations at the march and joined in expressing the Organization's revulsion for terrorism.

“He has been deeply moved by the images of today's march and the displays of global solidarity over the past few days,” said the statement, emphasizing the UN chief's strong commitment to the essential work of countering extremism, fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, and upholding the rights to freedom of speech and expression.

Calling in his statement for heightened efforts to promote tolerance and understanding, Mr. Ban said: “The world must address this violence and division in ways that do not exacerbate the problems and that ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law.” He also specifically warned against targeting Muslims for reprisals. “Such unwarranted bias would only play into the hands of terrorists and contribute to the spiral of violence,” the statement added.

According to UNESCO, today's unity march brought together nearly 50 heads of State and Government, including many political and religious leaders. Led by French President Francois Hollande, the march was also expected to include the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Israel, Palestine and the United Arab Emirates.

In her statement, the Director-General reiterated the mandate and commitment of UNESCO in promoting freedom of expression and defending a free, pluralistic and independent media. On behalf of the Organization, she expressed deep concern at such brutal sectarian violence, calling for unity and solidarity in response.

"The attack in Vincennes is criminal and anti-Semitic, featuring horrendous violence, following in the wake of the attacks of Toulouse and Brussels. Over the last few days, unspeakable attacks have taken place against Muslim places of worship and mosques have been desecrated.”

Ms. Bokova said terrorists are seeking to divide society, to set communities against each other, “and we must prevent this at all cost. This is the significance of this march, and the meaning of my participation, on behalf of the United Nations, guided by this spirit of solidarity."

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