4th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue

Baku 5 May 2017
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As delivered

President Aliyev, Your excellencies,

 Ladies and gentleman, 

On behalf of the Council of Europe, I would like to strongly extend my thanks to our member state Azerbaijan, its authorities, as well as the other international partners for the organisation of this Forum.

It was in this exceptional and beautiful Baku, in 2008, that the Council of Europe Ministers of Culture of 47 European countries and neighbouring regions adopted a final declaration for the promotion of intercultural dialogue, underlining, already then, the power and potential of culture for peace and sustainable development.  

I would like to pay tribute to the Azerbaijani authorities for the consistent support they have given this agenda through the Baku Process, and this Forum, which has become an excellent opportunity to come together and discuss such an important theme.

It was also in 2008 that the Council of Europe published our White Paper on intercultural dialogue, entitled “Living Together as Equals in dignity”. Already then the White Paper drew attention to the challenge faced by European societies in managing their increasing cultural diversity. Challenges faced nowadays, by the way, not just in Europe, but around the world.

In it, we articulated our firm belief that respect for cultural diversity is an essential pre-condition for stability and solidarity. It is a belief which flows directly from the concept of democratic security, which says that peace within and between nations cannot and should not be secured by military means alone, but also essentially depends on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

So important to us is this concept of democratic security that, each year, our Secretary General produces a report assessing the state of Europe’s democracies. These reports look at what we call the five building blocks of democratic security – in other words, the five components of strong and stable states. They are:

Efficient and independent judiciaries – because honest and decent courts are needed to uphold the rule of law.

Freedom of expression – so that all are free to express their different beliefs and identities. And so that the media is able to hold the powerful to account – a point that we emphasised this week, as we celebrated World Press Freedom Day.

Freedom of Assembly and Association – in order to support vibrant civil society.

Well-functioning institutions – to make sure that democracy works in practice.

And the fifth building block of democratic security, which is especially relevant to our discussions today: inclusive societies, in which people from different backgrounds are able to live together successfully.

What we are finding, however, is that living together is becoming increasingly challenging. We live in increasingly fragmented times, in Europe and around the world. Fragmented by growing xenophobia, islamophobia, aggressive nationalism and populism. Fragmented by terrorism and the climate of fear it creates. Fragmented by mass migration, involving the many people moving around the planet to escape conflict and danger. Fragmented by poverty and economic hardship in many of our societies too.

And so, against this backdrop – of fragmentation – the question is: how do we bridge divides within and between our societies? How do we pull together, fostering trust and mutual understanding between people when the forces of division loom so large? Because, ultimately, we must. For the sake of our common security and for sustainable development too.

The reality is that there are no quick fixes. All regions, nations and societies are different. But at the Council of Europe we believe that any state wishing to manage cultural diversity successfully must meet certain conditions.

First, they must have in place the right laws to prevent discrimination.

All states who are members of the Council of Europe, and thus party to the European Convention on Human Rights, must have robust anti-discrimination laws which are properly implemented  in order to protect vulnerable groups, such as members of ethnic and religious minorities, recently arrived migrants, asylum seekers and Roma.These laws and their implementation are strictly monitored by ECRI, our Commission against Racism and Intolerance. And, of course, individuals who feel discriminated against by the authorities are able to bring their complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion, along with all of the other liberties enshrined in the Convention.

Next, states must guarantee social rights. Here I am thinking not just of minorities, but of wider society. The politics of anger and xenophobia which we are seeing in many places is fuelled, at least in part, by social and economic grievance.

Where citizens feel that they and their families are deprived of quality education, decent health care, adequate housing and employment opportunities, it is infinitely easier for populist forces to stoke up prejudice. By contrast, where citizens can be more confident that their social rights will be guaranteed, they are less resentful; they have less need for someone to blame for their troubles.

Third, well-managed cultural diversity requires democratic education and respect for cultural rights. Here, intercultural dialogue enables a society to move forward together, reconciling different identities constructively and democratically, on the basis of shared universal values. But this is only possible where individuals can come to the discussion with some understanding of their own identity, and are able to communicate respectfully with those who see the world differently.

At the Council of Europe we therefore believe that teaching young people respect for other ways of life is a priority.

This is why we have invested in a ground-breaking new initiative to develop competences for democratic culture which can be taught across Europe’s schools. We also advocate teaching intercultural dialogue from the early school years and we train young people against hate speech on the internet. We also actively support cultural exchanges at all ages. During this Forum you will hear more about how we do this, including through the work of our North-South centre, as well as on Cultural Routes.

Last, but not least, states must actively pursue policies of inclusion if they are serious about successfully managing their cultural diversity. Hence why integration is a major part of the Council of Europe’s Action Plan on Building Inclusive Societies. Fighting Islamophobia will be a priority in our next bi-annual Programme of Activities. I should also mention our extremely successful Intercultural Cities network, through which dozens of cities worldwide pioneer new strategies and policies to manage and benefit from their diversity.  

Anti-discrimination laws; social rights; democratic education and cultural rights; policies of inclusion and integration: these are vital means by which we counter fragmentation in our societies. And they are objectives which are very much mirrored in Agenda 2030, helping take us towards its vision of a safer and more sustainable world.

I am extremely pleased to be with you today to talk about how we may make progress, together, towards that vision, and towards that world. Let me once again thank all of you, as well as the Azerbaijani authorities, and wish you all the best for the discussions ahead.