For information only - not an official document.
Press Release No: UNIS/GA/1679
Release Date: 6 September 2000
 Round Table Launching “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations”
Concludes at Headquarters

 NEW YORK, 5 September (UN Headquarters) -- The round-table discussion organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to mark the launch of the United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations, 2001 concluded this afternoon at Headquarters.

 The afternoon session, moderated by the Secretary-General’s special representative on the Year, Giandomenico Picco, brought together a number of scholars, writers and artists, after a morning session made up of heads of State and Foreign Ministers.

 Speakers addressed a wide range of issues, among them the impact of globalization and the Internet on such a dialogue, the concept of the clash of civilizations, the need for a dialogue within nations, as well as between nations, and the practical objectives of a dialogue.

 The former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, told participants that one had to start a discussion by considering what was meant by the word “dialogue”.  While a dialogue among nations had been taking place at the United Nations for many years, what was important now was a dialogue within nations.  There were conflicts in many countries and those countries needed help in starting an internal dialogue.  Further, the Internet would be a great achievement when the great majority of the world were able to use it.  Now, it was a great opportunity, but not a major element of dialogue among human beings.

 Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, asked, what did it mean to examine the past for answers to human progress?  That should not be just an academic inquiry.  The exhumation of the past could not be avoided, if one was to understand the present.  The last century was one of the bloodiest ever.  It was important to understand why.  some soul-searching was needed. 

 Mohamed Javad Farizadeh, Director of the International Centre of Dialogue Among Civilizations in Tehran, said the clash of civilizations suggested that there was a division based on civilizations.  That meant that the international community must not see everything only in the context of States and governments, but must gain a new perspective.  

Other participants this afternoon were:  Masanori Aoyagi, former Vice-President of the University of Tokyo; Richard Bulliet, Professor of History at Columbia University; Jane Cortez-Edwards, an African-American poet; Hans van Ginkel, Rector of the United Nations University; Attiya Inayatullah, a human development consultant from Pakistan; Ugnes Karvelis, a Lithuanian writer; Koh Byong-Ik,  former President of Seoul National University; Edgar Morin, Professor Emeritus at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France; Rex Nettleford, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies; R.K. Ramazani, Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia; Ru Xin, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing; Alexandre Yakovlev, of the Russian Academy; and Flora Lewis, foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

 The Year was proclaimed in a 1998 General Assembly resolution proposed by the Government of Iran.  The UNESCO plans a series of events and other activities related to the Year throughout 2001.

Work Programme

The second session of the round table discussion marking the launch of the United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations, 2001 took place at Headquarters this afternoon, bringing together a number of scholars and thinkers.  The morning session heard from heads of State and Foreign Ministers.


GIANDOMENICO PICCO, Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for the Year and moderator of the discussion, said that they were trying to conduct the session as a true dialogue, because there was a self-evident need that all learn how to better manage diversity.  The increasing interaction among people was the consequence of the increased movement across borders, as well as the incredible transmission of ideas.  By the end of the last decade, it was clear that not only the big countries affected the small countries, but vice versa.  That reality had made obsolete any autocratic illusions.

Learning how to manage diversity was no longer an option, he continued.  The issue of dialogue was an overwhelming concept.  The question for today’s dialogue was, how could the conversation be focused on dialogue and be relevant?  He asked Javier Perez de Cuellar to be the first to comment on the question.

JAVIER PEREZ de CUELLAR, United Nations Secretary-General from 1982 to 1992, expressed his gratitude for being invited to the meeting, which he felt was very important.  He said that the discussion should start with thoughts about what was intended by the word “dialogue”. 

There needed to be a dialogue among and between nations, he said.  A dialogue among nations had been taking place in the United Nations for many years.  The thing that was now very important was a dialogue within nations.  There were now many conflicts within countries and those countries needed help in starting an internal dialogue.  Democracy was indispensable for such a dialogue within nations.  He wanted to make that distinction clear from the outset.

RICHARD W. BULLIET, Professor of History at Columbia University, said that the topic of a dialogue of civilizations had engaged him for many years.  He said that it would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity to have something more concrete as an objective. 

There were three areas that could be improved upon, he said.  The first area would be for the people that are interested in the topic to focus on the issues of the times.  Those were things like sovereignty, intervention and the role of non-governmental organizations.  The second concern was that of globalization and the Internet.  Everyone recognized that something major was happening.  Therefore, it was important to seek to engage the people who were working within the new information world.  Third, as a university professor that had studied Islamic society, he was conscious that knowledge as an agenda was declining.  Specific knowledge of other cultures had been relegated as “local” knowledge.  There was some rational to that.  The type of knowledge of other civilization that rose and climaxed just after the First World War was the type of knowledge that had originated with imperialism.  New parameters needed to be formulated for the dialogue.

 Mr. PICCO said that there were also some information technology entrepreneurs present at the meeting.  It would be valuable to call upon their expertise at some point in the meeting.

 EDGAR MORIN, Professor Emeritus at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France, said that understanding was not based on the quantity of information.  It was something more than that.  It was necessary to see what separated individuals -- that was egocentrism, ethnocentrism and sociocentrism, or putting one’s self at the centre of the world.  In the morning session, speakers had shown that for western countries there was a real problem of a renunciation of a monopolistic attitude.  In any civilization there was both genuine knowledge and wisdom, but also errors and illusions.  That also held for western civilization.  In the west, for example, it had been said that elders were living in a situation where they were put out to pasture.   It was the case that civilizations not only failed to understand other situations, but also became incomprehensible to other civilizations.

 On tolerance, there were three levels, he said.  The first, as formulated by Voltaire, was the right to expression even if an opinion was repugnant to others.  The second was explained by the idea of democracy.  Democracy was a system in which diversity of opinion was required.  It was the interplay of antagonisms.  A third level, as best expressed by Pascal, was to try to understand the truth in ideas which were opposed to one’s own ideas.  Education must be promoted and advanced to show the obstacles to understanding, and to be open to understanding.  Everyone had agreed on unity and diversity of cultures and human beings.  Diversity was not the opposite of unity, and unity should not wipe out diversity.  In the era of globalization, everyone could feel that the earth was a shared homeland.  Without a shared homeland, a dialogue among civilizations would be nearly impossible.

 UGNES KARVELIS, a writer and literary critic from Lithuania, said that Lithuania would be organizing a conference on dialogue among civilizations.  Before knowing others, one had to go back to the old adage, know thyself.  Another point of great importance was the definition of the word dialogue.  It was no longer an issue of acquiring knowledge.  Knowledge would continue to be acquired.  Rather, it was necessary to go from the stage of observing to empathy and osmosis.  Osmosis in the sense of being permeable to what can be received and integrated.   Beyond a small part of the global population, globalization was a phenomenon of civilization.  There must be a dialogue between civilizations, but also globalization with other civilizations.  Globalization was a new civilization, being imposed on a global civilization.

 RU XIN, Professor of Social Sciences and the former Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said that they were facing a new problem -- globalization.  It was true in the field of economics, with the growth of international trade and rapid flows of information exchange; different economies had infiltrated into each other.  Globalization of economic life had become an irreversible trend.  The dialogue among civilizations was extremely necessary.  Faced with the process of globalization, a global consciousness was necessary.  

The process of globalization provided different countries with not only opportunities, but challenges, he said.  The internationalization of the economy would promote economic and social development.  The newly industrialized countries had benefited from the recent economic development and prosperity.  It also created problems -- preserving characteristics and cultural traditions of countries.  It was not possible to adopt a unanimous model or impose certain cultural values.  People in different countries had the right to choose their path to development and to preserve their own cultures and values.  China was participating in the process of globalization.  An open China was willing to absorb the achievements of world civilizations, but would not copy any foreign model of development.

In the morning session, some speakers spoke of the idea of a clash of civilizations, he said.  He did not think that a clash was inevitable, but rather those civilizations could coexist in peace, and replace confrontation with dialogue.  

WOLE SOYINKA, from Nigeria, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, said that he saw this meeting as preparatory one. It was impossible to speak on such a large subject as the dialogue of civilizations.  It was important to identify areas of neglect when one talked of civilization.  What did it mean to examine the past for answers to human progress?  It should not be just an academic inquiry. The exhumation of the past could not be avoided, if one was to understand what was happening now.  The last century was one of the bloodiest ever and it was important to understand why.  Some soul-searching was needed. 

He said that one would hope the result of dialogue would be a self criticism.  What had been done to other civilizations?  Why was there such a catalogue of indictments from others?  There had to be an examination in order to shed light on those past grievances.

MOHAMMED JAVAD FARIZADEH, Iran, Director of the International Centre of Dialogue Among Civilizations in Tehran, said that the perplexity of the discussion was natural and to be expected.  In the first session, many different points of view would be heard.  One view alone was insufficient.  There were people here that felt that subjective points of view must be avoided, but at the same time the level of discussion had to be elevated. 

Civilization was a concept that evolved in the modern period, he said.  With an analysis of the word a new phase could be entered.  The “clash of civilizations” suggested that there was a division based on civilizations.  That meant that the international community must not see everything only in the context of States and governments, but must gain a new perspective.  Socrates believed that issues must be understood on the basis of dialogue.  Dialogue was examined further by Christian thinkers when they were analysing the dialogue between man and God.  Other philosophers had talked about dialogue and the discussion now under way must start from what had been said earlier. Furthermore, the discussion of dialogue had to be taken in various cultural spheres. 

 ATTIYA INAYATULLAH, from Pakistan, a social and human development consultant, said that the speakers in the morning had provided many things to think about.  President Khatami had mentioned the capacity of Islam to overcome dualism, while encouraging pluralism.  He added that in the twentieth century there was an absence of dialogue.  In this regard, he asked for a new paradigm for international affairs for the new century.  She also fully supported the words of the President of Mali when he said empty discourse should be avoided. 

 The single most important element of development was the human element, she said.  Civil society should be strengthened.  Violence that was caused by fear and suspicion had to be stopped.  The causes of violence should be studied and understood, and that should be at a regional level.  The syndrome of the clash of the civilizations needed to be left behind.  The undercurrent of that was that “the other” was evil.  An effort needed to be made for a dialogue of those who would listen and hear. 

ALEXANDRE YAKOLEV, a historian and member of the Russian Academy, said that he fully agreed that the most important condition for universal dialogue was depolitization of that dialogue.  He did not believe that people wanted to be enemies and antagonistic.  He was convinced, rather, that the problem was a matter of politicians and selfish groups.  The most effective way to bring about a universal dialogue was contacts between people.  If governments were to agree to a full cessation of financing for the military, then people would be able to overcome the unfortunate barrier raised by politicians for dialogue.  Before discussing dialogue, one first needed to determine the source of quarrels.   A discussion on dialogue, moreover, was useless if man continued to lie to nature.  Sooner or later nature would take its revenge.  Humankind must move to a new principle of eco-development.  

The new information era brought the fear that it was possible to have a universalization of life and values, he said.  It was not a question of globalization, but universalization of the television culture.  There was a kind of monopoly looming in the area of mass media, which was fraught with that danger and linked to a degradation of mankind.  If one did not defend the diversity of cultures, it made no sense to speak of dialogue.  The most burning issues must be singled out.  A dialogue of the future could only exist on the basis of relations among people, and not relations between bureaucrats.  The  United Nations must be a strong organization, a world government.

 Dr. REX NETTLEFORD, Vice-Chancellor of the University of West Indies, Jamaica, said that the plurality of existence was a given.  Any cosmology that would be embraced in the twenty-first century had to take that on board.  There were people who lived by that.  The United States had hijacked the word “America” into its vocabulary.  The focus of dialogue should be to get the next generation to understand the new world in which they lived.  Youth must be a target.  The whole notion of diversity and unity was not new, but initiatives by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) required tremendous resources.  The United Nations and UNESCO could do a great deal to encourage organizations around the world.  Books needed to be rewritten and the questions of religion, family and artistic manifestations should be addressed.  

Young people seemed to understand that, he said.  Music, sports, art and dance should get into the books and into the curricula of schools everywhere.  There was a great deal of work to be done by way of action.  The United Nations must put resources into what was already on the ground.  He agreed that dialogue should not be empty rhetoric, but a basis for meaningful action.

R.K. RAMAZANI, Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, United States, said that there was no question that there was a process of rejuvenation all over the world.  The United Nations had a great role to play.  The problem of dualism still existed.  That would not be washed away by saying the words unity and diversity.  Unity to him was an aspiration.  Diversity was accepted when it came to sovereignty of the State, but when it came to humanity then the term used was universality.  That dichotomy of dualism needed to be resolved in practical terms.

He offered four propositions in which a dialogue among civilizations could proceed.  A dialogue among civilizations should not have a model, but should be in search of a model. It should be exploratory.  The second feature was that it should have a normative dimension.  Third, relative to other paradigms, it should be far more comprehensive, perhaps holistic in its approach.  The final feature of the dialogue should be indicative of a concern for humanity, or the oneness of mankind, as an aspiration.  The claim of a dialogue among civilizations was one of unity. 

MASANORI AOYAGI, Professor of Classical Archeology at the University of Tokyo, Japan, said that when one spoke of a dialogue among civilizations it gave the impression of a dialogue between two parties.  He wanted to change the word to “poli-logue” to express a feeling that many cultures were involved in the conversation.  There were 2,000 languages in the world.  The concept of “poli-logue” would be important for future discussions.

 KOH BYONG-IK, Republic of Korea, formerly a Professor of Asian History and President of Seoul National University, said that dialogue among civilizations was now widely and deeply integrated among people.  Due to reasons of transportation and communication, dialogue on the individual, societal and governmental levels was happening.  Individual dialogue, however, was sporadic.  For the reconciliation of civilizations, personal-level dialogue would require centuries.  The proposal for a dialogue among civilizations was both timely and good.  There was a need not only for sporadic, but also for planned and organized dialogue.  That might sound dangerous, but planned dialogue at the leadership level would be very effective.   

Disharmony in the world came mainly from hate and contempt by one ethnic group towards another, he said.  That hate could be the focus of a dialogue.  The elimination of that kind of sentiment was most important.  The feeling of harsh antagonism was an acquired sentiment.  The feeling of contempt was man-made.  Three religious beliefs coexisted peacefully in Korea today.  An organized effort from the top helped those different beliefs to coexist.  The antagonism between North and South Korea was unparalleled.  It was now starting to crumble, however, because of the efforts from top leadership.  

 Mr. PICCO then posed the question, was dialogue the result of individual decisions or collective institutions?

 JANE CORTEZ-EDWARDS, United States, an African-American poet said that at the moment, people were getting together out of necessity for dialogue.  They were choosing the path of life and forging ahead with life at the centre of dialogue.  She thought it was necessary to ask the questions, how would the dialogue continue and who would control it?

 FLORA LEWIS, United States, a foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, said that she was uncomfortable with the word civilizations in the plural.  There were degrees of civilization, but either one was civilized or was not.  She could not agree that it was a modern idea.  She did not think there was any reason to feel it was a new invention.  What was new was the idea of recognizing that there were different ways of going about it.  It was true that there was such a thing as hatred and bad, nasty behaviours.  The United Nations peacekeeping report made a point of saying that it was wrong to assume that everyone wanted peace.  It was necessary to consider that some people who had behaved badly would continue to do so.  Democracy was essential.  Was it a western idea?  Or was it something built into the very notion of civilization?  That was an issue to continue discussing.  

Learning another language was not only learning different words, but learning another way to think about things, she said.  It was important to continue to push for more foreign language education and to point out that it was an education not only in words, but also in how to think.  She agreed that it was important to consider the issue of ecology.   The issue had always been the “west versus the rest”.  One did not hear about Asia and Africa trying to understand each other.  The whole issue of civilization was being approached in a false way.  
HANS van GINKEL, Netherlands, Rector of the United Nations University, said that he thought that there was too much talk about globalization.  In fact, globalization was nothing new.  For example, the migration of people throughout history had increased contact and information exchange.

He wanted to increase the sincere dialogue between people, he said.  In order to increase the capacity for dialogue, there had to be a move towards learning the background of other people.  There needed to be a basic understanding of the other side.  Respect and understanding were the basic conditions for a dialogue, because one had to accept the other as an equal. 

The focus of the discussion should be what type of world do we want to live in? he asked.  Was it just about the economy?  Cultural diversity had been discussed, yet all actions were directed towards homogenization.  Education should be used to help children learn about the world in which they lived.  Children had to be educated that there was a world beyond where they were.  It should be systematic to screen a textbook to see what was being said about other countries and civilizations.  The UNESCO and the United Nations University had dealt with that element of science and education and it needed to be included in the dialogue among civilizations. 

KAMRAN ELAHIAN, of Global Catalyst Partners, said that there was a new civilization.  That was a new civilization where Arabs and Israelis worked together, where Indians and Pakistanis worked together and where North and South Koreans worked together.  That was the new civilization of information technology.  His companies had succeeded all over the world by hiring people based on equality.  He had then given them the tools to change the world.

The new culture was a global culture, he said.  The information technology revolution had enabled that advance.  A space had been created where everyone was equal.  His suggestion was not to have another level of bureaucracy, but to have the citizens of the world make the effort.  There could be a true dialogue among civilizations with the information technology revolution.  Leaders of the world should not be scared of what their citizens had to say. 

Concluding Remarks

 Mr. KOH said that the influence of the Internet on the dialogues among civilizations could not be overlooked.  He would continue to study the Internet business in a deeper way.

 Mr. AOYAGI said that a few centuries ago everyone felt agoraphobic.  Now they felt claustrophobic.

 Ms. LEWIS said it was necessary to ask the question, what world did one want to live in?  Information technology was a tool, but one still had that decision to make.

 Mr. BULLIET said that what was lacking was adequate international consultation and dialogue with respect to what should be included in the study of world history.

 Ms. CORTEZ-EDWARDS said that once a focus of dialogue was known, dialogue among people should become a way of life defined by the citizens of the world.

 Mr. FARIZADEH said that information technology could broaden information, but at the same time it could lead to misunderstandings.  The limitations of the Internet in the context of social lives must be understood.  Information technology was a tool that could create both understanding and misunderstanding.  

 Ms. INAYATULLAH said that she would give information technology more muscle power.  It had limitations.  She would look for a dialogue among educators.  She requested that UNESCO host a dialogue on women’s contributions to civilizations.  

 Ms. KARVELIS said that information technology was wonderful, but it was not an instrument of dialogue.  The “live” aspect would always be missing.  

 Dr. NETTLEFORD said that while the Internet provided information, it did not educate.

 Mr. RAMZANI said that the dialogue concept required more than what had been said.  Empathy was needed.  That was a matter of heart. 

 Mr. RU said that information science could be used as an important means of dialogue.  It made dialogue more convenient.  The problem was how to use it in a proper way.

 Mr. SOYINKA said that internal dialogue was just as crucial as dialogue between religions.  The essence of dialogue was to look into the history of civilizations and to see if it were a time of a dialogue of equals.

 Mr. VAN GINKEL said that there should be a difference between an international culture and cultural diversity.  Cultural diversity was a coherent culture in different places, and was different than one homogenous culture.  In Europe, school programmes had been developed in building up of the nation-state.  The world community of peoples asked for a different kind of pedagogy.

 Mr. YAKOLEV said that the Internet was going to wipe away old customs.  On the other hand, he had apprehensions as to how it might take the soul out of man. 

 Mr. MORIN said that information was necessary but not sufficient.  Information did not provide understanding.  Dialogue was an attempt to understand the ideas of others.  There was a need to envisage reform of education as a whole.  People must be taught to understand one another.

 Mr. PEREZ de CUELLAR concluded the discussion on the dialogue among civilizations by stating that the Internet was a great achievement of humanity as a whole.  However, a large minority were using it.  When the great majority was able to use it, it would then be a great achievement.  It was a great opportunity, but it was not a major element of a dialogue between human beings.

 His concept of dialogue included two phases, he said.  The first was an internal dialogue.  That was essential, as it led to democracy, which led to legitimacy of external dialogues.  There then needed to be an intergovernmental dialogue.  What was the goal of dialogue?  It was peace with justice.  Peace alone was not enough. 

The need to preserve different cultures was important, but the need to preserve identities was just as important, he said.  Identities should not be absorbed.  Diversity needed to be respected.  He suggested an ethical code at the global level.  He appealed to the Member States to back the resolution of the Millennium Summit with action. 

Mr. PICCO asked, what was the practical objective of a dialogue among civilizations?  He hoped that it would be the beginning of a new paradigm of international relations; one not based on the interpretation of diversity as a threat, but one where there was a reassessment of the concept of “enemy.”  Hiding individual responsibilities behind concepts like history and religion was unacceptable.  History did not kill, ideology did not destroy and institutions did not rape.  The only entity who could do that was the individual.  The common humanity that was so germane to all had to be recognized. 

The new paradigm engendered by the dialogue might open the door to an international social contract, where legitimacy was provided in exchange for participation, he added.  Human dignity had to be at the top of all of it.

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