Building peace in the minds of men and women

In Geneva, Director-General highlights profound links between cultural diversity and the protection of human rights

On 31 March, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, took part in a round table on the theme “Human Rights and the Protection of Cultural Diversity,” held at the University of Geneva, with the participation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UNESCO Special Envoy for Intercultural Dialogue, Metin Arditi and author, psychoanalyst and university professor, Julia Kristeva. The Rector of the University of Geneva, Jean-Dominique Vassalli, was also present at the event.

The Director-General referred to the situation in Iraq, from where she had just returned.

“What we witness in Iraq and Syria is unprecedented in nature and scale, both from the humanitarian and moral dimensions, as it touches to the essence of human rights and the protection of cultural diversity,” she said.

Irina Bokova pursued by underlining that “cultural diversity is an expression of human rights – the persecution of minorities, religious and ethnic, and the looting and pillage of cultural heritage are part of a deliberate global strategy to eradicate history and memory, the identities and the existence of these peoples and communities, and, through them, the cultural diversity that is our common heritage.”

Metin Arditi highlighted that “the destruction of cultural heritage is but a symptom of the destruction of the Other,” noting that “the West is living through an unprecedented intellectual crisis – we need to restore the humanities at the heart of our societies, as the cradle of ideas and intellectuals for the future. Universities have a historic responsibility here, to prepare society for its own transformation and to help people understand and live together.”

Julia Kristeva focused on "the question of identity and fanaticism that are central aspects of, on the one hand, the ambitions of universalism and, on the other, the expression of cultural diversity that feels threatened. Humanism must be a perpetual questioning of one’s own values ​​and those of others, a constant reinvention, and only the humanities can provide the laboratory we need for a new humanism. We need to support the humanities and for political discourse and media to take this on, in the fight against the deadly face of fanaticism,” she continued.

All speakers stressed the importance of teaching about religions through the humanities, as areas of knowledge and understanding, as well as debate and discussion -- "in order for beliefs to not become the sole possession of fanatics and extremists.”

The High Commissioner highlighted the centrality of respect for the cultural heritage as an integral part of human rights, the right to enjoy their own culture -- "What remains needs to be protected and given the greatest care."

The General-Director concluded on the key role of education for global citizenship, as promoted by UNESCO, including education for human rights as the mainstay, stressing the need for cultural literacy and development of intercultural competences to make the most of contemporary multicultural societies and the challenges of living together.