Rede von Staatssekretär Hans Winkler anlässlich der UN-Konferenz zum Dialog der Kulturen (nur in Englisch)
by H.E. Mr. Hans Winkler
State Secretary for European and International Affairs
of the Republic of Austria
High-level Dialogue on
Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding
and Cooperation for Peace
New York, 5 October 2007
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Ladies and Gentlemen,
Austria fully supports the Statement by the Presidency of the European Union and would like to add a few additional thoughts.
The existence of intolerance, racism and other forms of discrimination is an undeniable fact. Such phenomena exist in all our countries, I am afraid, and even increasingly so. The news reaching us almost every day are most alarming: Immigrants or asylum seekers are being harassed or attacked. Debates about publications which are offensive to some while others insist on the principle of freedom of expression get out of hand and sometimes even lead to outbursts of violence. Religious symbols are becoming a matter of contention. In short, inter-religious and inter-cultural relations within societies and beyond national borders are becoming strained and might lead to disaster were we not to take measures against those trends.
The disquieting truth is: all this is happening despite the laudable efforts of many well-established organisations and institutions in the field of combating different forms of intolerance, despite numerous studies, reports and an almost endless number of resolutions and action plans.
Must we then put our hands down and - discouraged - admit defeat, discontinue our efforts and accept the state of affairs as it is?
The answer is obvious - of course not! We must not leave the field to those who sow discord and preach hate and intolerance. By giving up our fight against intolerance and bigotry, we would leave those who want to destroy our values victorious.
Today we have the chance and the duty to learn from the mistakes and omissions of the past. Whether religiously, racially or economically motivated, whether in the East, West, North or South, we must stand up against all forms of extremism and the abuse of religious convictions and cultural traditions.
Dialogue is the indispensable fabric which holds each democratic society together and which is the prerequisite for the peaceful co-existence of different cultures and religions. Only dialogue communicates what unites us, but also what irritates us.
Austria is committed to protecting and promoting cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance. We have a longstanding tradition as a platform for meaningful dialogue between religions and civilizations. Each country has specific challenges to meet. While the problems are of a global nature, the answers have to fit to the particular situation in each country. Therefore, Vienna has been a centre of inter-religious dialogue, particularly between Christianity and Islam. We will continue to remain engaged, because we know that we are not immune against the challenges many countries in Europe and elsewhere are facing today.
We believe that the United Nations are the best framework to promote such a dialogue on a global scale by setting standards, including legal standards, and by being the vanguard in the protection of human rights. States bear a large share in the responsibility to fight intolerance and discrimination. It is incumbent upon them to create the legal and institutional framework in which discrimination will be prevented or, if need be, transgressions will ultimately be prosecuted and punished by independent courts. By the same token, political leadership is required to ensure the necessary political, social and economic framework where free citizens can exercise their rights and are protected against violence and aggression.
The State, however, cannot shoulder this responsibility alone. Civil society plays an important part and religious leaders have to assume a special responsibility in this respect, as was underlined very eloquently yesterday by Minister Alkalaj from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fundamental values inherent in all world religions clearly mandate all such leaders to explicitly reject the preaching of hate and incitement to violence.
Radicalisation - disguised in religious terms - seems to take place in a kind of "identity vacuum" where young people who lack social or economic perspectives struggle with their own identity.
Clichés and misrepresentation of what is "foreign" can easily be created. Mutual trust is much more difficult to achieve.
Nobody is born a terrorist or extremist - and that is true for all religious or ideological backgrounds. Education is the key to reaching out to the hearts and minds of young people. Access to knowledge and information as well as clear perspectives are the driving forces for changes in society and for a peaceful and secure coexistence of all citizens.
Like many countries, we have tried to find our own answers, while learning from best practises of others. For instance, a number of steps have been taken to promote dialogue with Islam. University masters programmes on Islamic religious pedagogy, establishing faculties of Islamic theology, as well as Imam training programmes at European universities and teacher training colleges are just some examples which might facilitate a fruitful dialogue.
Dialogue also needs structures and continuity. Coming back again to the example of my own country, the Austrian Government, together with the Islamic Community in Austria, recently initiated and supported a Conference of European Imams in Vienna. The declaration adopted at that occasion clearly states the necessity to develop a "Muslim European Identity" and leaves no doubt as to the compatibility of Islam, democracy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms.
The declaration also addresses gender issues and states i.a. that "any kind of violation of women’s rights should be criticised and fought. Forced marriage, genital mutilation, honour killings and violence within the family have no foundation in Islam." It is clear that women - in all societies - have an important role to play in the dialogue efforts both in community work and in politics in general, including in international peace processes.
In May this year, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik hosted a conference on "Women Leaders - Networking for Peace and Security in the Middle East" with a number of eminent personalities from different countries in the region. The clear message from this conference was that women are ready to reach out to each other across national, ethnic and religious barriers and to engage in constructive dialogue.
We have no time to lose. Otherwise we risk that our societies are taken hostage by extremists on all sides. The success or the failure of our efforts today will determine the future of our children!
Thank you, Mr. President.