New York

22 April 2015

Secretary-General's remarks at General Assembly Thematic Debate "Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation: Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism"

I thank the President of the General Assembly and the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations for organizing this event, and for inviting the world’s faith leaders to participate.

I thank you all for coming. 

Yesterday, we had a productive debate on how to foster peaceful, inclusive societies, and how to counter violent extremism.

Today, we turn to what you, as men and women with great influence on people across the world, can and must do in this vital endeavour.

We have all been outraged by the recent murders and destruction of cultural heritage carried out by violent extremists cynically invoking religion as their guide.

At a time when we are seeing so much division and hatred, I wanted to bring people together under the banner of the United Nations to explore how best to respond.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.

Our organization was born from the ashes of the Second World War.

Clear values were set for Member States in the United Nations Charter:

The dignity and worth of the human person.

The equal rights of men and women.

Tolerance and living together in peace and harmony with one another as good neighbours.

These principles are our bedrock and our inspiration.

They are what this Organization is pledged to defend.

But today, around the world, they are under siege.

Our values are held in contempt by terrorists and violent extremists bent on imposing their warped visions and bankrupt ideologies.

Violent extremism is not a North-South or East-West issue.

It is not confined to a particular region or religion.

It transcends borders and exists across the world.

Religion does not cause violence; people do. 

Today, we see violent extremism most vividly in the atrocities committed by Da’esh, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda and other sectarian and terrorist groups.

But it is also evident in racist acts and hate speech. 

Migrants are among the most frequent targets, often at the hands of politicians.

Prejudice against those of another faith, history or culture is always toxic.

There is a direct line between prejudice and extremism, and between racism and genocide.

After the Holocaust of the Second World War we vowed “Never again”.

But we have seen ethnic cleansing and genocide in many places since.

Yet we have also seen reconciliation.

That is the paradox of the human condition.

Yes, we are capable of the utmost brutality, but also of courage and compassion, healing and forgiveness, tolerance and reconciliation.

Distinguished faith leaders,

Today, I ask for your wisdom and leadership. 

I see two ways in which you can make a difference.

First, we need you to promote dialogue as an antidote to sectarian tensions.

I have committed to forming an advisory panel of faith leaders and others to guide us in addressing these complex issues.

Your voices will be critical in countering hate speech and finding common ground.

Second, we must address the factors that enable violent extremists to gain new recruits.

Later this year, I will present a United Nations Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. This will be a comprehensive plan of action.

Faith leaders work on the front lines of their communities.

Many of you can see the forces of radicalization or intolerance at play.

I urge you to use your spiritual and moral influence to counter their narrative by standing up for moderation and mutual understanding.

We must ask ourselves: what is the attraction of extremist ideologies?

Most of those recruited by violent extremists are young men, although we are also seeing women fall under the influence as well.

Many are frustrated with the few avenues available to them to pursue productive lives and find their place in society.

Many are galvanized and then radicalized by the violence or injustice they see around them or on social media. 

These abuses and perceived indignities can make individuals ripe for recruitment by violent extremists.

We must show them another way, a better way.

That includes working to end poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity.

And it means upholding human rights and providing peaceful channels for the resolution of grievances. 

Missiles may kill terrorists.  But I am convinced that good governance is what will kill terrorism.

That is why I urge you to speak out against human rights breaches and social injustice wherever your encounter them.

I ask you, too, to do more to amplify the voice of the moderate majority so we may drown out those who preach violence and hatred.

I also hope the media will do more to avoid falling into the trap of providing fringe elements and provocateurs with the very attention they seek.

Distinguished faith leaders,

You have a vast audience, great influence and an immense responsibility.

I count on you to use your standing in society for the collective good.

We must always protect the rights of people to think, speak and worship freely. 

We must firmly protect our cultural heritage, and condemn those who want to rewrite history.

Let us stress our common humanity.

Let us be courageous in opposing the forces of violent extremism.

And let us be equally brave and courageous in addressing the ills of society and the injustices that plague so many lives.

I am troubled by an empathy gap in our world today. 

People are turning their eyes from what is happening to others. 

Communities rush to point out an affront against themselves, but ignore or dismiss the legitimate grievances of others. 

I am worried that a certain numbness and helplessness may be setting in as people witness atrocity after atrocity.

We must not lose sight of our common humanity and our shared duty to respond.

We expect our religious leaders to be brave, and to teach their followers when they see something morally wrong.

Together, we can rise to the call of the UN Charter to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirm human rights, and promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

I count on your strong engagement and commitment and leadership for a world where everybody can live with dignity and harmony and well-being.

Thank you.