Irina Bokova: Urgent action for cultural diversity in the Middle East is required

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© UNESCO/P. Chiang-Joo

Paris, 8 September 2015—More than 70 ministers and senior representatives of international and intergovernmental organizations (including the United Nations, UNESCO, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the European Union, the Alliance of Civilizations, the Union for the Mediterranean) and representatives of the Middle East’s religious communities met in Paris to discuss a plan of action to support the victims of ethnic and religious violence in the region and to defend cultural diversity at an international conference chaired by the Foreign Ministers of France and Jordan, Laurant Fabius and Nasser Judeh.

Opening the Conference, French President François Hollande stressed the urgent need for coordinated political, humanitarian and judiciary action to end ethnic and religious violence in the Middle East and safeguard its rich cultural diversity.

“The Middle East is diversity, pluralism, culture… this definition of humanity is at stake,” said President Hollande. In the same spirit, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia argued in favour of a multipronged approach to overcome the crises underway.

“Cultural vandalism is used as a weapon of war. It is a war crime and it is a central component of the humanitarian crisis, as it affects the vital needs of people, their identity, their references and their will. In any strategy aiming to establish lasting peace in the Middle East, we must reinforce the roles of culture and education: this is not only a cultural and educational question, but an absolute humanitarian and security need,” declared UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

Speakers addressed the many short and long-term issues involved in safeguarding cultural diversity and pluralism in the Middle East, both for the present and for the long term.

The Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, spoke of his government’s total mobilization in the fight against fundamentalists and religious extremists, and of his country’s multi-confessional history, which has shaped its identity.

The Foreign Minister of Lebanon for his part said: “We cannot imagine, not even for a minute, our region deprived of all its minorities, its cultural diversity, of its very essence, which rooted in the values of tolerance. The permanence of this cultural mosaic must be secured and the very foundation of Lebanon as a place of tolerance and humanism must be preserved.”

The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, spoke of the European Union’s work to set up the facilities for refugees and the responsibility of all the countries of Europe in this respect. She also recalled the pressing need to formulate inclusive policies within every country of the Union to respect differences and fight against discrimination.

Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Gentiloni, for his part, appealed to the “international conscience to respect differences,” stressing that “cultural diversity must be recognized as a pillar of peace and development.”

Speakers urgently called for the strengthening of international solidarity in the face of the unprecedented humanitarian needs of millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced persons living in extremely vulnerable conditions. They agreed on the need to identify policies that will support voluntary return whenever possible and promote the peaceful coexistence of different communities based on dialogue and respect for human rights. The safeguarding of cultural heritage must be an integral part of this process because of its strong symbolic value and its role in the reconstruction of societies and reconciliation of communities.

The need to address the deeper causes of sectarian violence so as to contain the spread of violent extremism, notably the radicalization of young people, was raised by several speakers. They also talked of the need to invest in education to improve young people’s social and professional inclusion.

Participants finally committed to combat impunity for those responsible for ethnic or religious violence, including the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage. They included these measures in the Action Plan adopted at the close of the conference.