For information only - not an official document.
30 January 2001


NEW YORK, 29 January (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of a keynote address, delivered in Stockholm on 29 January by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at the Prime Minister's Dinner for the Stockholm International Forum on Combating Intolerance:

It is an honour to address you this evening. Nane and I are especially thrilled to be with you in this legendary City Hall, known far beyond the shores of Sweden for its striking silhouette, and for its Nobel Prize dinners. I certainly hope that I can live up to this illustrious setting!

Let me start by congratulating you on choosing such a timely theme for this Forum. Your work will provide valuable input to the World Conference on racism later this year. It will also, I hope, come to benefit a range of the activities of the United Nations -- for intolerance lies at the core of many of the problems we face.

So what is intolerance? Essentially, it is a rejection of diversity -- usually because for some reason or other, diversity is perceived as a threat. It is a major cause of many of today's wars. In its extreme form, it leads to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

This conference therefore follows on logically from last year's Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust.

The United Nations was born out of the very lessons of the Holocaust that marked Europe's darkest hour. Today, we tackle the problem of intolerance on many fronts and at many levels. Let me give you just a few examples.

-- Tolerance amid diversity is the starting point for the current "United Nations Year of the Dialogue among Civilizations".

-- The dialogue seeks to promote the understanding that the rich diversity of cultures can be a source of betterment and growth, if it is rooted in an overarching global civilization based on shared values of tolerance and freedom.

-- This morning, you will have heard from Mrs. Robinson about the work of her Office, with its advocacy and action at grassroots and national levels, engaging both government and civil society.

You will also have heard her stress the role that the upcoming World Conference against racism can play in giving a new impetus to the fight against intolerance and racism worldwide.

-- Ultimately, the United Nations work to promote tolerance is fundamental to both conflict prevention and peace-building. Without tolerance, our work on development and good governance would achieve little.

-- And of course, education is crucial to the promotion of a culture of tolerance. This work has been the cardinal mission of UNESCO since the organization's inception and is eloquently framed in its charter (and I quote): "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed".

These basic points may not seem necessary to dwell upon in Western Europe, a part of the world which sees itself -- sometimes rightly -- as a beacon of tolerant civilization.

But even the most liberal societies usually turn out to have their blind spots. In many parts of Europe, immigration appears to have reached the "threshold of tolerance", as the late President Mitterrand described it. Governments have reacted by trying to limit the numbers of immigrants.

In some cases, such measures may be understandable. But it is important to remember that most immigrants come to a country because there is work for them to do there.

In the case of Western Europe -- as the latest United Nations demographical studies indicate -- this may be even more relevant in future. The need for immigrants to bolster the workforce will increase as the profile of Europe's own population grows older.

It follows that it is vital to do more to educate people about what immigrants are doing here. To explain the contributions they make. To make clear that they should be seen not as a problem but as a solution. To spell out the fact that high crime rates stem not from ethnic origin, but from poverty, exclusion and bad social conditions.

Educating the young is especially important in this regard. It must build on two simple truths: no one is born prejudiced; but neither is any child immune to intolerance. Children will respond to the social environment they are exposed to -- and you know how it is with children, if they observe an attitude or hear a line that is new to them, they will pick it up and imitate it.

As an example of that point, let me mention the story of a quintessentially liberal, Nordic United Nations colleague who was posted to a developing country with his seven-year-old daughter.

One day the girl had to ride home from school unaccompanied in a taxi, and the driver accidentally took a wrong turn, as could happen to anyone. What shocked the liberal ears of our United Nations colleague was to hear his seven-year-old daughter exclaim when she finally arrived home (and I quote): "These bloody natives. You can't trust them an inch." When questioned, she said had picked it up the line by listening to some grown-ups talking at a party.

Fortunately, this girl had a father who quickly put his very good-natured daughter back on the right track. Not every child is so lucky.

And while educational institutions have made much progress in devising curricula that teach the value of diversity and empathy, we must develop that work further. We must make use of the unique learning capacities that have made the human species so successful in evolution.

And we must learn to understand better the needs of our fellow human beings who happen to be immigrants. They need to be integrated, not assimilated. In other words, they need to be helped to join in society, without being asked to sacrifice their culture.

The New York Times recently ran an excellent series of articles on crossing borders and testing tolerance in Europe. It told the story of a Turkish immigrant in Germany who summed it up wonderfully (and I quote): "Does integration mean I have to give up my Turkish identity? Then I say no. Does it mean Christianity? No. Or does it mean that I learn other things and Germans help me to do so and we talk and reach out to each other? Then I say, yes."

Right now, however -- and in contrast to North America, for instance -- Europe is saying mostly "no" to new immigration.

And the tighter the immigration policy, the greater the strain on the asylum system. This, regrettably, is inevitable. Where there is no way for people to enter a country as legal immigrants, some are going to try to enter as asylum-seekers instead. This situation results in stricter and more cumbersome procedures for weeding out genuine from "bogus" asylum-seekers.

In that context, let us remember that a bogus asylum-seeker is not equivalent to a criminal; and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one.

Too often, Governments try to prevent asylum-seekers from arriving in the first place, by effectively extending the country's frontiers -- for instance, by forcing airline employees to substitute themselves for immigration officials. In some countries, authorities expel asylum-seekers with little or no proper examination of their claims. The result is that some people risk being sent back to countries where their freedom, their safety or even their lives are in danger.

In other cases, governments have not invested adequately to ensure prompt and fair procedures, leading to long delays in processing asylum applications. It means that some asylum-seekers are not allowed to work for months or even years while their cases are examined, and receive only minimal minimum support for themselves and their families while they are in limbo.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the general impression is that in reacting to the immediate pressures, Europe has adopted politically popular measures that contradict its relative prosperity and its prospected need for greater numbers of immigrants in future.

Consequently, I regret to say, there are some indications that Europe is losing sight of its duty to protect refugees under international law, as set out in the 1951 Convention. This is a source of deep concern to me, and risks having enormous impact on other regions who look to Europe as an example.

It is a concern that will be high on the agenda of the new High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, who as Prime Minister of the Netherlands played a key role in European Union policy for many years.

Allow me, then, Prime Minister Persson, to congratulate you and your country on holding this Forum so early in your presidency of the European Union.

It is my hope that Sweden -- with its outstanding tradition of promoting tolerance, human rights and democratic values worldwide -- will use its time at the helm of Europe to work for change:

-- for a positive re-appraisal of European Union asylum policies, with basic international treaty obligations and human rights in mind;

-- for a commitment to promoting inclusiveness and empathy in the diverse societies that already exist in Europe;

-- and for the teaching of tolerance to all people, young and old.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish you a most inspiring continuation of this Forum. Thank you all very much. Tack allesamman, och lycka till -- thank you all, and good luck.

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