Conference of the European Ministers of Culture - 20 - 22 October 2003 - Opatija, Croatie 

(To be checked against delivered speech)

Speech by Paul Van Grembergen, Flemish Minister for Home Affairs, Culture, Youth and the Civil Service

Opatija, 20 October 2003

Introduction to the working session 1: “Culture and Conflicts”

Your Excellencies,
Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a true pleasure to be present here with you today in this beautiful city that has witnessed distinguished cultures passing by throughout the ages, sometimes peacefully, other times not. I feel deeply honoured to give the introduction to this work session titled “Culture and Conflicts”. This being a very actual and much debated subject does not make the task easier on me. Therefore I will just try to share my very honest opinion and insights with you to open up the debate.

First of all before tackling the complex and very much intertwined subject of “Culture and Conflicts” I would like to make the following remark. I personally would have preferred to reverse the order of the words. To me “Conflicts and Culture” would have made more sense, as I will discuss later on.

I am a firm believer that culture or more precisely a cultural identity as such could never be the starting reason of a conflict. The grass root reason of a conflict could be reduced in most cases to the “unequal” access or sharing of resources leading to exclusion based on ethnicity, religion, social background, … in other words cultural differences and a lack of respect of the other that is seeing as different due to ignorance or indoctrination. This being said, I could direct the discussion by asserting that culture cannot be the cause of a conflict, and instead, it is merely an excuse or a mechanism (and a very dangerous one) through which a conflict can be built, can escalate or degenerate into hate and persecution of other human beings because.

Of course, I cannot stop my introduction without spending a few more words on the subject as it stands, knowing that the time frame that has been given to me will not allow a broad and in depth exposé. But I would like to look at both words ‘Conflict’ and ‘Culture’ before putting them into the context of the purpose of our reunion.
Conflicts can take different and ample forms, and are normal and daily challenges. A conflict can happen on the personal and interpersonal level, between me the busy politician and the caring family person, between my wife and me or between my colleague and me. A conflict can also take place on the inter-group level between socialists and liberals concerning a decree, between soccer players and rugby players about the use of a field. A conflict can also happen between regions or nations about the use of a river for instance. As the dimension of a conflict can vary, so can the intensity. A conflict can escalate from a mere verbal one to an armed clash, having devastating results and shameful references in history.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our modern life and societies have become very complex. Therefore it is even more inappropriate than before to reduce ourselves or other people to certain cultural groups, and on that basis, a fallacy to assume that culture is the sole or primary determinant of conflict. A person is unique, multi faceted and composed of different identities. As a progressive regionalist, I belong to a certain political formation. As an atheist, I belong to the humanist and the freethinkers. As a dedicated gardener I belong to my local gardening group. Those are all aspects of my personality and character and generalizing me as just one of them would be irrespective of my true individuality. On the other hand, reducing myself to one of them and not being open to the others would make a fanatic, or an extremist out of me.

Therefore, fostering respect and open debate, and promoting recognized participation and representation of every person in their local and global societies is essential in order to avoid conflict. Such openness and deference for individuality are vital elements necessary to build strong foundations for different forms of democracy, and will ultimately safeguard conflicts from escalating and triggering exclusion, hate and intolerance leading to dehumanising persons based on certain cultural differences. Keeping the conflicts in societies to the debatable and verbal level is the difficult and challenging task of politicians.

A more challenging task confronts the civil leaders of post conflict societies, the number of which have progressively increased during the last decade. In those situations “reconciliation” on the economic, social and/or political level is key. But, it is not enough that inequalities are being rebalanced. Acknowledging and respecting differences in societies is as important as redefining policies; the combined result should be an incorporating one. Societies should be open to debate and differences within the boundaries of respect and tolerance. Only this way will our societies be able to enrich and to progress.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I prefer the ordering of “Conflict and Culture” rather than “Culture and Conflict” because automatically linking culture to the cause of conflict is a misleading notion. We must be ever so careful to generalize the cause of conflicts and evermore diligent to dig for the often unapparent root causes. More importantly, we must realize that the word “conflict” is much more accurate term describing an event than culture is in describing a person, his/her beliefs, and/or his/her identity. Understanding that individuality and multiple identities accurately transcend the often vague, generalized connotations associated with “culture” is a significant, but necessary task for politicians and a vital insight for societies.

The particularity and uniqueness of culture can be appreciated, but the common elements that bind many cultural beliefs together, ie. Humanity must never be forgotten.

I hope that those last implicit few words about the role of politicians in societies will open the debate of this work session.

Thank you.