Conference of Ministers responsible for Culture "Intercultural dialogue as a basis for peace and sustainable development in Europe and its neighbouring regions"

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Speech by Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Baku, 2 December 2008

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The question I would ask everyone here today is very simple: are we ready for dialogue?

The theme of this Ministerial Conference reflects the core objective of the Council of Europe, namely preserving and promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Intercultural dialogue is a political priority, as re-affirmed by the 3rd Summit of Heads of State and Government in 2005.

And yet, this conference in Baku is an event with a series of preoccupations with dialogue. Why?

It is indeed the first Conference of Ministers of Culture of Council of Europe member states organised in a composition which goes beyond the geographical boundaries of the Council of Europe and which associates Ministers from neighbouring regions. It is intended to reflect jointly on “intercultural dialogue as a basis for peace and sustainable development” and on the common ground for future action.

Baku in Azerbaijan is a unique place. It has been at the crossroads of different cultures throughout its history and a natural bridge between East and West and between North and South.

And this is a very special event because it was only in May 2008 that the Council of Europe launched its White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue. This conference is the first event at Ministerial level following the publication of this key policy document, and we need to look at how it is put into practice – from dialogue about dialogue to dialogue.

For all these reasons I am glad to be here to open this conference together with the President of Azerbaijan, Mr Ilham Heydar oglu Aliyev, and with the Representative of the Spanish Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and my distinguished colleagues from UNESCO, ALECSO and ISESCO.

I should like to stress that the inter-cultural dialogue is one of the priorities of the Spanish Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, and that it is no coincidence that the conference in Baku is the first event organised since Spain took over the helm of the Council of Europe less than a week ago.

We are here to share experience and make progress together. In different ways, we are all exposed to cultural diversity in our ever more multicultural societies, and in many ways cultural diversity is as important to mankind as natural diversity is for the environment. Yet, we are all too often still caught in thinking along national, ethnic, linguistic lines and stereotyped identities.

Continuous intercultural dialogue is the “social glue” that we need inside our societies. It is an antidote to intolerance, division and violence. Dialogue is not an ideology, and it is not a recipe for blind application, abstracting from particular political contexts. But if we make sure that diversity is valued, that diverse individuals engage with each other as fellow human beings, and that people have the opportunity to engage in dialogue, then there is a chance for all of us and future generations to live in a better world – with mutual respect, justice and safety.

Culture is a great facilitator in this endeavour. Starting from language and language policies, through the design and use of public spaces, architecture and cultural heritage, to artistic creation in the visual and performing arts, popular music and sports. Culture nourishes our senses and our ability to see, meet and understand each other and ourselves. And, in this endeavour, our hearts, minds and bodies are all involved. Good policies therefore allow for many such intercultural spaces and opportunities.
It is extremely important that we are relevant and specific. It is always good if people speak to each other, but intercultural dialogue should not be reduced to exchanges of benevolent platitudes at international seminars. The objective is to encourage dialogue between real people about real problems in real life. The make or break test of our activities is not the number of international conferences or brochures they generate, but their impact on how people live and cope with their problems at home, at school, at work, on the street, in their local mosque, their local church or their local synagogue.

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I want us to engage in this dialogue, which cannot take place in the absence of respect for the equal dignity of all human beings, human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles. These values guarantee mutual respect and understanding, and they are essential to ensure that dialogue is governed by the force of the argument rather than the argument of force.