‘We have to find the courage to celebrate our diversity’ Kofi Annan

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01 March 2010




kofiannanWhen Nelson Mandela walked to freedom 20 years ago, he re-entered a society seemingly irreversibly split by the evil of apartheid. An explosion of violence, to many, seemed inevitable. It is a tribute to his extraordinary leadership and vision – and a yearning for peace among all the people of South Africa – that we have seen reconciliation, not revenge.

The celebration of this anniversary could not have come at a better time. We are in grave need of being reminded of his qualities.

We live, as never before, cheek by jowl. Economic integration and rapid communications have brought different races, cultures and ethnicities closer together and yet it is a tragic irony that at a time when we are more inter-connected than ever, we are beset by growing inequalities, divisions and tensions.

This cross-fertilisation between cultures, which in the past has proved so vital to humanity’s progress, is taking place in almost every community. Our world has grown smaller. But this can make the divides – the divisions in wealth, influence and opportunity – all the more obvious and painful. Wherever we look, we seem in danger of creating an age of distrust, fear and protectionism.

Disillusioned with globalization, we are seeing a retreat into narrower interpretations of community. Many, particularly in the Muslim world, see the West as a threat to their beliefs and values, their economic interests and political aspirations. In turn, many in the West dismiss Islam as a religion of extremism and violence despite a long history of cooperation and exchange.

Terrorist attacks, war and turmoil in the greater Middle East, ill-considered words and disregard for sacred symbols and practices, have all inflamed tensions. Relations are strained between followers of the three great monotheistic faiths.

At the very time when international migration has brought unprecedented numbers of people of different creed or culture to live together, the misconceptions and stereotypes underlying the idea of a “clash of civilizations” have become more widely shared.

Some groups seem eager to foment a new war of religion on a global scale. The insensitivity with which the less powerful, the minorities and migrants are sometimes treated makes it easier for these sentiments to take root. It is vital that we all work harder to overcome these resentments and re-establish trust between communities. We have to find the courage to celebrate our diversity but also the commitment to tackle the gross inequalities which scar our world. We need to recognize that every community, including a global one, has to be under-pinned by shared values which protect the weak if it is to be secure and prosperous.

Here we are fortunate, for these values – compassion, solidarity, and respect for each other – already exist in all our great religions. These same enduring values are also enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We can use these frameworks and tools to bridge divides and make people feel more secure and confident in the future.

These principles must be turned into reality in every country and community. Whether it is freedom from fear or freedom from want, many hundreds of millions of people are denied their basic rights today. We need Governments to live up to their commitments and obligations and combat the growing inequalities that estrange us from each other.

Globalization will not bring peace or prosperity unless we all share fairly in its benefits. For this the global architecture will need to be reshaped in order to reflect the new multi-polarity of our world. This will require reconciling a more diverse set of interests and values but will ultimately provide much stronger foundations to address shared threats and challenges.

But such actions will have limited impact if the current climate of fear and suspicion continues to be fuelled by political and other events, especially those in which Muslims are seen to be the victims of military action by non-Muslim powers.

Unfortunately, divides do not only exist between countries, continents or civilizations. We also find them within communities where adherence to universal values is just as important. There is abundant research to show the widespread benefits of migration. But too many Governments have been slow to develop strategies for integrating new arrivals and continue to expect them to conform to a static vision of national identity.

We have to have the confidence to embrace diversity, to focus on what we share without forcing everyone into conformity. Universal values are not about eliminating differences but about managing them for everyone’s benefit. All this places a heavy burden on our leaders in politics, in faith communities, in business and in civil society to speak out against prejudice, to promote dialogue and trust. The same is true for all of us as individuals.

Universal values oblige each of us to show the same respect for human dignity, and sensitivity for people of other communities, that we would expect them to show for ours. It is easy to be tolerant of those with whom you feel comfortable or share opinions. The challenge is to respect those with whom you disagree or who come from a different culture.

It is these qualities which we celebrate in Nelson Mandela and which we need to emulate in our daily lives.

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