On 19 February, 2013, H.E. Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, visited UNESCO and spoke before a packed assembly of Permanent Delegates on the theme of “Drawing Water from the Same Well – The Central Importance of UNESCO in Building Peace through the Recognition of the Power of Culture.”
The Director-General, Ms. Irina Bokova, introduced the President, declaring that “Ireland is one of UNESCO’s greatest champions -- a champion in its work to guide Education for All, in its engagement to advance human rights education, in its commitment to uphold cultural diversity.” “But,” she continued, “it goes deeper than this -- Ireland embodies values that are at the heart of UNESCO, the values of equality and respect, those of human dignity.”
President Higgins spoke about the emancipatory power of culture for laying the foundations of peace in a world undergoing profound change, and he thanked UNESCO for providing an opportunity for peoples to come together. He underlined the importance of UNESCO’s action “not just to build the defences of peace but to celebrate peace secured,” through education for all, the sciences, culture, communication and information.
“The world is different than 67 years ago,” said the President, “but the fundamental issues remain the same – human rights must be at the centre of all development.”
President Higgins echoed the Director-General’s call for a new humanism to guide human development in the century ahead, and emphasised that “these are times of change and also opportunity” – opportunities that must be seized fully for the inclusive and sustainable development of every society. The President said this calls for sharing the advances of science and technology for the benefit of all humankind. It calls for a renewed commitment to dialogue and respect between peoples of all cultures, in order to strengthen moderate views and the respect for human rights --“We need the constructive engagement of our different systems of thought”. This calls especially, said the President, for a new vision of culture, a vision that “brings culture in from the margins, to the heart of public policy.”
“Culture, heritage and diversity are central to meeting the challenges of sustainable development, including the ending of poverty and the elimination of gross inequalities,” stated the President. He welcomed all of UNESCO’s work to safeguard cultural heritage, especially when it is under attack, as in Mali. He highlighted the importance also of the forthcoming UNESCO Creative Economy Report, the Congress in Hangzhou, China, on culture and development and the forthcoming UN General Assembly debate on the same theme. He concluded by reminding all that culture must not be seen as a commodity – however important is its economic value for revenues and employment -- but as “an expression of memory and imagination.”
“Culture is the ability to be human,” declared the President. “Culture cannot be administered in the same way as any other administrative commodity,” he said, adding that “there is no culture contingency that can infringe on human integrity.”
Stepping away from the podium, the President received a standing ovation from the audience. The Director-General thanked him for sharing the passion and intellectual depth of his views. “We need this passion and this clarity of principle more than ever today, in this fragile world” she said.
“This is especially important for UNESCO now, as we define our Medium Term Strategy for the coming 8 years. We must be proud of our Organization, of our history, of the values that guide us and of our ability to meet the challenges facing societies across the world.”