6 September 2006
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY co-chair of high-level group of alliance of civilization

Briefing correspondents at headquarters today were the Co-Chairs of the High-Level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations, launched by the Secretary-General in July 2005 to assess threats to international peace and security, particularly the political, social and religious forces that foment tensions and extremism, and to identify collective actions to address those trends.

The Group was concluding a two-day working session, its fourth, before presenting its final report to the Secretary-General in Istanbul, Turkey, in November.  Opening remarks were made by Mehmet Aydin, Minister of State of Turkey and Professor of Theology.  He was joined by his Co-Chair, Frederico Mayor of Spain, President of the “Culture of Peace” Foundation and former Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Professor Aydin explained that the Alliance, whose original 18 members, now 20, had been identified through extensive consultations with specialists in the field of inter-civilizational and intercultural relations, responded to a broad consensus across nations, cultures and religions that all societies were interdependent, bound together in their development and security, and in their environmental, economic and financial well-being.

He said that the Alliance sought to forge collective political will and to mobilize concerted action at the institutional and civil society levels to overcome the prejudice, misperceptions and polarization that militate against such a consensus.  In that effort, it was paying particular attention to relations between Western and Muslim societies, as events of recent years had led to mutual suspicion, fear and misunderstanding in relations between them.  That environment had been further exploited by extremists on all sides.

In three previous meetings, the group held substantive discussions on the causes of tensions, conflicts and extremism in the world, and how to counter the polarizing effect those were having on relations between societies.  In the meeting in New York, it used as its basis a second internal draft of its final report.  Focus had been on the political dimension, with particular emphasis on how the divide could be bridged through dialogue and alliance.

He said that there was a general understanding among the members that certain political problems simmering in the Middle East for so long, primarily among them, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had the potential to threaten global peace and security.  Those problems were addressed during the meeting.  Very recent developments, namely the war in Lebanon, showed clearly that understanding was necessary.  There was also a general feeling among the members that to reach the goals of the Alliance and of global peace and security, the role of the United Nations and other international organizations should be strengthened.

There was also a general agreement that human rights and values commonly shared in today’s contemporary world needed to be supported and, that no concession must be given under any circumstances, he said.

Turning to the report, he said its priority themes were education, youth, immigration, women and the media.  The policies of integration of immigrants had also been addressed during the current meeting.  Significant progress had been made toward producing the final document.  He hoped that the text and the actions that it recommended would contribute to the efforts of those seeking to mitigate global divisions and help to reassert the importance of cooperative, non-violent, multilateral approaches to the world’s shared problems.  As such, the group found the United Nations to be a particularly fitting location for its deliberations.

Asked if the Alliance of Civilizations “can actually do anything”, such as changing the situation on the ground with Hizbollah or Al-Qaida, for example, with conservatives in the United States, which seemed so at odds with each other, Mr. Mayor said that, particularly because the world was at a crucial moment of turbulence of all kinds, the Alliance could offer a mediation for bridging the divides and prompting dialogue.

At the same time, there was immense progress today in technological and other instruments, he said.  So, the means existed for the Alliance to prompt dialogue, reconciliation and conversation, and it was now studying how it could recommend, for example, in the Middle East, a new approach.  One basic issue was the multilateralism and the reinforcement of the United Nations capability for very rapid action, not only in cases of entrenched conflict, but, at the point of prevention or at the start of conflict.  Apart from the promotion of multilateralism and mechanisms for reconciliation, the Group was also studying the roots of extremism, such as the results of economic policies.

Mr. Aydin added that the group was totally independent, meaning it was not attached to any Government or official body.  It was also seeking to be action-driven, proceeding not only with analysis, but also by promoting a plan of action.

Replying to another series of questions, Mr. Mayor said that, according to the Group’s mandate, the relations between the Muslim and Western societies were among the issues to be studied, but with many extremist examples, the conflict was “intra-religious”.  The best example presently was in Iraq, where extremism was also an invasion of one country in a war that was based on false proposals.  Therefore, the Group must look at all the different cultural, ethnic and generational differences.  In some instances, the Group was considering the integration, and not the assimilation practices of a country.

He said that the situation in Darfur was also being examined.  That was not a failure of the United Nations as an institution, but of all those who, for many years now, did not support the United Nations and did not follow its recommendations or followed them only when they wished.  He pointed to the invasion of Kosovo without Security Council agreement, as well as to in-depth reform of the United Nations.  Eradicating poverty was also crucial, as a way of keeping the promises made to developing countries.  Darfur was a terrible failure of all humanity and of all Governments, particularly of the most powerful in the world, but not specifically of this institution.

Mr. Aydin stressed the need for countries to go through a process of self-criticism because cultural arrogance was one of the main negative social diseases of society today.  A country and its people should be humble enough to examine and then re-examine its point of view, its culture and so forth.

One of the most important conclusions was that there was a multi-polar answer, Mr. Mayor added.

Expanding on the emphasis on a multi-polar approach, Mr. Aydin said the Group was basically laying down general principles and crafting an action plan that would be applicable to peoples or groups in similar or identical situations around the world.  In other words, it was trying to combine a universal approach with local and regional issues and problems.

Asked how the Group’s recommendations would be followed up, he said he hoped the action plan would be accepted by all nations because it would not contain details, but rather, basic principles.  The Group would come together around the application of basic human rights, around values about which there was a committed philosophical agreement, such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and so forth.  Regarding education, for example, in both the East and the West, there were real concrete problems requiring a thorough review of curriculum and textbooks and so forth, in order to delete the things that bred hostility instead of reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.

Admittedly, the Group’s individual members saw things through their own eyes and based on an accumulation of their own experiences, but, at the end of the day, they agreed that they would reflect the views of all members of the group.  Terminology and language were very important in terms of how the group was going to explain itself:  what was the meaning of fundamentalism or Islamic extremism or ecumenism?  Therefore, the linguistic dimension was extremely important.

Yes, cultural diplomacy was indispensable and everyone agreed, Mr. Mayor replied to another question.  Dialogue was one way for the Alliance to bridge the divide.  The Group had received the support of nearly all agencies of the United Nations system, as well as of parliamentarians around the world.  It was up to the Secretary-General to decide the mechanisms for follow-up.

Mr. Aydin did not think that the project for a dialogue among civilizations was dead, as one correspondent had suggested.  There were plenty of good studies with the Group indicating some kind of action in that regard.  The world was desperately in need of cultural diplomacy because culture had become a political issue.  Culture usually included some part of religion.  Indeed, it had become a euphemism for religion.  There was an assumption of universality, that one people had to be like another, and if they were not, they had to be persuaded, or worse, forced, he said, paraphrasing the thesis developed by Samuel P. Huntington in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

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For information media • not an official record