Distinguished President of the General Assembly,
Mr. Secretary General,
Dear Representatives of Member States,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In Portugals role as EU Presidency, I have the honour to speak on behalf of the European Union. We welcome this High-level dialogue on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace, including the interactive hearing with representatives of Civil Society to take place this afternoon. We believe that Europe has a key role to play in the promotion of Interreligious and Intercultural understanding along with other regions of the world.
In the history of international relations, the challenge for so long has been the peaceful co-existence of different value systems. Over the centuries, many different ways to avoid conflict have been sought. One solution is for nations to share peace and prosperity through dialogue, understanding and tolerance.
Mutual understanding does not entail imposing one’s values or culture or faith on others. It involves respecting different values and beliefs based on the awareness of common political, economic, social, ecological and cultural challenges we face in an increasingly global and vulnerable world. It means protecting and promoting all human rights and fundamental freedoms which were several times reaffirmed as universal; it entails freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief; it requires an open mind and the willingness to understand and the pluralism of cultures, religions and beliefs.
Beyond these attitudes and intercultural competences, we must focus on concrete cooperation and common actions. Pluralism in European Society and the legal, political and social conditions for coping with it have been a major factor for prosperity and development. We must enhance mutual understanding on the basis of our firm conviction that human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression, are the common ground on which we stand.
Dialogue will only succeed if we make sure that both men and womens experiences and expertise are integrated effectively into our intercultural and interreligious dialogue; into social and political initiatives of conflict prevention at all levels. Dialogue will only bear fruit if we enable our youth to respond actively and positively to the challenges of our pluralistic and vulnerable world.
The European Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. These principles are common to all Member States and the EU is ready to play its part in this process.
A common understanding and acceptance of core values among Europeans of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds is crucial for peaceful cohabitation and social cohesion. In consequence, the EU applies its core values and principles in all of its policies and promotes these within Europe and beyond.
The European Unions integration and non-discrimination policies are guided by the following principles; the principle of equality before the law; the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of any ground and the fight against racism; respect for cultural, linguistic and religious diversity; and equality between men and women.
The EU promotes freedom of religion and belief throughout European societies and beyond, including through the media. The resolution introduced at this Assembly by the EU on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief, adopted last year by consensus, is but one example of our commitment to guarantee this fundamental freedom.
European culture has been enriched by outside influences throughout its history and European culture and ideas have had a profound influence on many cultures throughout the world. Europeans of various social, cultural and religious backgrounds contribute to the diversity and prosperity of Europe today. Todays European identity is a multiple one, reflecting manifold and pluralist influences, including those of migration and globalisation. Europe faces the challenges of continuously developing and strengthening the dialogue with its various communities, ethnic minorities and numerous religious communities, including the very positive engagement with the Muslims of and in Europe. The European Union views its political and legal framework as essential to ensure social peace and cohesion and to marginalise radicalism and extremism on all sides. Freedom of religion, non-discrimination and recognition of religious communities in particular is a crucial precondition for any successful dialogue.
The importance of inter-civilisational understanding is strongly reflected in European Union policy and action. The EU is active in promoting intercultural and interreligious understanding, both within Europe and with international partners. I would like to give to you some examples of initiatives strongly supported by the European Union, which aim to promote a more peaceful and cohesive society.
The Euromed Barcelona Process provides a framework for dialogue between the European Union and its Mediterranean partners. This established the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between cultures. The Foundation’s main objective is to bring people and organizations from both shores of the Mediterranean closer to each other and to help bridging the gap between them. Particular importance is given to the development of human resources, while youth is the main target group. Another priority is the promotion of tolerance among people by furthering exchanges between members of the diverse civil societies. The Foundation, which facilitates the coordination of 35 national networks, has programmes in the fields of media, education, women and youth.
With a membership of 43 Asian and European states, the Asia Europe meeting (ASEM) is uniquely placed to foster links between Asia and Europe through Interfaith and Intercultural dialogue.
ASEM Interfaith Dialogues have helped to build mutual understanding between Asians and Europeans in the fields of interfaith and inter-religious relations. The third ASEM Interfaith Dialogue was held in Nanjing, China in June this year. Together with the two previous meetings, in Bali, Indonesia in 2005, and in Larnaca, Cyprus in 2006, they addressed the relations of interfaith dialogue to peace, justice, compassion and tolerance. The Nanjing Statement issued at the end of the dialogue reflected the role of interfaith dialogue on globalisation, peace, social cohesion and development and cultural and educational cooperation. A fourth dialogue in Amsterdam is scheduled for 2008.
Additionally the ASEM partnership has achieved substantial results in boosting cultural, educational, intellectual and people to people exchanges, expanding and facilitating research networking and promoting cultural diversity.
Europe is a strong supporter of The Alliance of Civilisations Initiative. It was proposed by the President of the Spanish Government, in 2005 and co-sponsored by the Turkish Prime Minister. In April 2007, the UN Secretary General appointed Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, as his High Representative for the Alliance of Civilisations. The Alliance, with the endorsement of the United Nations SG, intends to galvanise collective action across diverse societies in order to combat extremism, overcome cultural and social barriers between mainly the Western and predominantly Muslim worlds, and to reduce the tensions and polarisation between societies which differ in religious and cultural values.
It is our understanding that, in order to most effectively move forward the agenda of dialogue and tolerance, the Alliance of Civilisations and other UN initiatives for enhancing dialogue and mutual understanding should be carried out in a coordinated, coherent, and complementary manner, within the existing institutional framework. The EU sees the Alliance of Civilizations as a ‘flagship initiative’ in this area and we would see it as a potential “focal point” for the increasing number of initiatives. Through a better coordination of initiatives rather than their proliferation, we improve our chances of making a difference.
Turning again to Europe, the Council of Europe White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue is expected to be adopted in November 2007. On its website devoted entirely to the role of Intercultural Dialogue, the Council states its firm belief that Dialogue between cultures, which is the oldest and most fundamental mode of democratic conversation, is an antidote to rejection and violence. Its objective is to enable us to live together peacefully and constructively in a multicultural world, and to develop a sense of community and belonging.
Finally in October 2005, the European Commission proposed that 2008 be declared the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. With a budget of EURO 10 million, the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue will present a wide variety of enriching concrete projects that will be implemented in the framework of EU programs and other Community actions. The Year of Intercultural Dialogue will encourage the mobilisation of civil society and actors at the European, national and local levels. Culture, education, youth, sport and citizenship will be the focus of activities.
To conclude, it is possible that the term “inter-civilisational or intercultural dialogue” might be construed as an endorsement of the idea that humanity is divided by monolithic and entirely distinguishable “civilisations”. But this is far from accurate. In reality the boundary lines between cultures are mostly unclear. Over time and space, different cultures influence each other profoundly. Most civilisations harbour people of different cultures who coexist peacefully. The European Union is committed to promoting dialogue and understanding, and striving for universal appreciation of different religions, cultures and beliefs.
Thank you Mr. President.