Madam President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, and Esteemed participants,
Let me thank the President of the General Assembly, Her Excellency Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, for proposing this timely and topical debate.
This meeting comes at a time of rising intolerance and growing cross-cultural tensions. Events of recent years – from terrorism and the means used to fight it, to offending words or publications – have only accelerated these trends. They have exposed a widening gulf between communities and nations. If unaddressed, this divide has the potential to undermine broader peace and stability in our world.
Today, there is an urgent need to rebuild bridges and to enter into a sustained and constructive intercultural dialogue, one that stresses common values and shared aspirations. As a start, all of us need to better understand the issues affecting intercultural relations.
This Assembly provides a unique platform to do so. By bringing together representatives of all countries in one chamber, it is perhaps the highest possible forum for a dialogue among nations and civilizations. Your discussions – which also involve prominent thinkers and civil society representatives from the world over – can not only clarify a way forward, they can also serve as an example of what can be achieved through constructive debate.
Over these two days, I hope you will explore ways in which governments, international bodies, foundations, civil societies and religious groups can come together on this issue. I am already encouraged by the specific subjects you have identified for closer examination. The panels on respect for cultural diversity, the role of religion in contemporary society, and the responsibilities of the media each highlight some of the most pressing challenges confronting every society.
Unfortunately, in our age of satellite television and jet travel, distances have collapsed but divisions have not. Instead, our proximity has heightened longstanding suspicions of “the other” – the other religion, the other ethnicity, the other nationality. It has led increasing numbers of people to reject diversity in favor of the familiar.
In response, we need to reassert the truth that diversity is a virtue, not a threat. Indeed, it is the very essence of human condition, and a driver of human progress.
The media can play a crucial role in promoting this perspective. It can shape people's views and influence their actions. It can educate, inform and demystify even while it entertains. It can promote the message that what unites humanity is much stronger than what superficially separates us.
Similarly, religion can have a tremendous positive influence as well. For instance, people of faith can stress the core beliefs and ideals found in all the great religious traditions: compassion, solidarity, respect for life, and kindness towards others. They can urge their fellow believers to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated.
Dear delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I know that the outcome of your discussions will be widely studied. But it can also benefit the UN's own initiative for an Alliance of Civilizations. Launched in 2005 with the support of the Governments of Turkey and Spain, this project responds to the clearer need for action by the international community to bridge divides and promote understanding. Based on the recommendations of a panel of eminent persons, the Alliance has established several priority areas for action, including the role of the media in promoting dialogue, the pressures on youth and immigrant communities, and the political factors that can promote extremism.
I recently appointed His Excellency Jorge Sampaio, the former President of Portugal, to lead the work of the Alliance. I am delighted that he will also participate in your discussions tomorrow afternoon.
For my part, I eagerly await the outcome of your meetings. I am confident that it will inform my own thinking and help guide the work of the United Nations.
In that spirit, let me wish all of you a most productive and informative session.
Thank you very much.