New York

12 November 2008

Secretary-General's remarks at the General Assembly High-Level Meeting on the Promotion of Inter-Religious and Inbter-Cultural Dialogue, Understanding and Cooperation for Peace

Thank you, Mr. President, for convening this high-level meeting on interfaith dialogue.

Your Majesty, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,

Asalamu alaykum. [Peace be upon you.]

Your Majesties, Your Highnesses, Distinguished Heads of State and Government.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you all for coming together for this high-level meeting. Your presence testifies to the importance and urgency of dialogue in today's world.

Saudi Arabia has taken a truly inspiring initiative for global harmony and mutual understanding. I thank the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, for his dynamic role in making this gathering possible.


We live in a wonderfully diverse global village.

Globalization can be a great force for progress. But as economies merge, as cultural boundaries disappear, as new media bring our societies closer together than ever before, new fault lines can emerge.

And indeed, we are seeing some troubling phenomena.

Communal strife is intensifying. Extremist ideologies are on the rise. Societies are more polarized.

Anti-Semitism remains a scourge. Islamophobia has emerged as a new term for an old and terrible form of prejudice.

And other kinds of faith-based discrimination and racism show a dismaying persistence. Sometimes it seems as if none of history's awful lessons have been learned.

One of the great challenges of our time must now surely be to ensure that our rich cultural diversity makes us more secure –not less.

Traditionally, peace involves balancing the interests of different States. But we have learned that lasting peace requires more than a competitive equilibrium. For peace to endure, individuals, groups and nations must come to respect and understand each other.

Interfaith initiatives are addressing this need with ever greater frequency and force.

One of the most respected of these initiatives was the World Conference on Dialogue, held in Madrid this past July at the invitation of King Abdullah.

That landmark meeting brought together followers of the world's religions, eminent scholars, intellectuals and others. The participants affirmed their belief in the fundamental equality of human beings, “irrespective of their colour, ethnicity, race, religion or culture”. And they pledged to act within their spheres of influence to foster dialogue and cooperation.

We at the United Nations welcomed the Madrid Conference as a major contribution to our own longstanding efforts to promote tolerance and mutual respect. That work derives from our founding Charter, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- the 60th anniversary of which we will mark next month -- and from other groundbreaking human rights instruments.

It takes concrete form in the work of initiatives such as the UN Alliance of Civilizations, which was established at the initiative of the Governments of Spain and Turkey.

Over the past two years, the Alliance has been supporting grassroots civil society projects that seek to bridge cultural divides by addressing entrenched stereotypes and polarization among communities. These projects have involved exposing young people to other cultures, and having experts provide opinions and advice on issues that threaten to inflame identity-based conflicts.

The Alliance has also established a group of friends and intends to advance this work further still at the next forum to be hosted by Turkey in April next year.

Many other Member States have put forward initiatives. Iran. Kazakhstan. Pakistan. The Philippines. Russia. And others.

UNESCO has been striving to promote inter-cultural understanding since its very founding.

The Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace is helping governments, civil society and UN agencies to share ideas.

These efforts complement each other and advance the cause. They are showing that there is no corner of the world that cannot benefit from an active, targeted approach to promoting cross-cultural contacts and education. The call to dialogue is striking a chord.

But we cannot be satisfied with declarations of intent and commonality, important as those are. What we need is dialogue that delivers. We need new partnerships that will continue after the last delegate has gone home.

For this to work, we need to involve everyone. Government officials, grassroots groups, CEOs, philanthropists, academics and the media.

And we especially need the world's young people. By virtue of their youth, prejudice may not be as ingrained; in a sense, they may have less to unlearn. They are well placed to approach the unfamiliar -- people, customs, ideas -- with open minds.

Living together in peace has proved tragically difficult. We must try harder to bring shared values to life.

With knowledge and leadership, we can live up to the best of all our traditions, and ensure human dignity for all.

As we move ahead, let us be guided by the words of the great international civil servant, Ralph Bunche. It was 1949. He was in the midst of the peace efforts for which he won the Nobel Prize for Peace. At a particularly trying moment, he said the following:

“I have a deep-seated bias against hate and intolerance. I have a bias against racial and religious bigotry. I have a bias against war and a bias for peace. I have a bias that leads me to believe in the essential goodness of my fellow men; which leads me to believe that no problem of human relations is ever insoluble”.

That is the only bias we can tolerate.

Thank you very much.