16 July 2001


NEW YORK, 13 July (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of today’s address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Freie Universität, Berlin:

It is a great pleasure to join you today. Ever since its founding in the early days of the cold war, this renowned university has been deeply engaged in the issues of our times. Students and faculty alike have stood up for liberty and democracy, and have stressed the need to look society's problems squarely in the face.

Today, some of the professors among you are supporting the initiative I have launched -- the Global Compact -- to improve corporate citizenship around the world. And your strong commitment to cooperation with universities in other countries, including in the developing world, is very much in the spirit of the United Nations. So it is good to be here among kindred spirits and friends.

It is also a privilege to receive this honorary degree. I know that through me, you are paying tribute to the United Nations and its global mission of peace and development. Thank you for this recognition, and for understanding the vital role that peacekeepers, humanitarian workers and other United Nations personnel can play in today's world.

I want to speak to you today about human rights, and in particular about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. Despite decades of work by the international community and by dedicated activists throughout the world, too many of our societies remain plagued by ethnic conflicts, violence rooted in fear of the "other", and opposition to the universality of human rights.

That is why, just over six weeks from now in Durban, South Africa, the United Nations will hold a world conference that aims to bring new vigour to the fight against intolerance.

Germany has a major role to play in this effort: as a Member State with great influence on the negotiations, as a country with cautionary historical experience, and most of all as a nation where men and women are working very hard to overcome the legacy of the past and to build a harmonious society of justice and opportunity for all.

Intolerance is a many-headed monster.

Its victims are diverse, and include women, migrant workers, refugees, indigenous people, minorities and those whose political views are deemed objectionable for one reason or another.

Its manifestations are equally varied: we find prejudice in the workplace and sports arenas; in textbooks and mass media; in identity-based politics and the provision of government services.

Even globalization may now be feeding it, as increased contacts and competition among peoples can create new tensions and suspicions.

The diagnosis is clear. But the prescription is not so easy.

We cannot simply shrug off discrimination as an aspect of human nature. We know that people are taught to hate -- and they can also learn to overcome it, through better understanding.

Nor must we accept intolerance as a predictable by-product of poverty, injustice or poor governance. Yes, these are among the conditions that pit man against man. But it is within our power -- and it is surely our duty -- to change them.

Nor, finally, can we afford to ignore fascist rhetoric on the grounds that "words can never hurt me"; hostile rhetoric is all too often the precursor to hostile acts, and hostile acts have a way of escalating into violence, conflict, and worse.

The battle against intolerance is not a job for one group or one organization; it calls for concerted action by many different actors.

Governments and leaders can play a powerful role.

It is their responsibility to ensure that constitutional, legislative and administrative guarantees are in place.

They are also best placed to tackle the problems that fuel intolerance, such as unemployment, and to lead the national dialogue on these issues.

Even simple acts, such as attendance at festivals or events held by minority communities, can help demonstrate that diversity is something for a society to cherish. Yes, let us accept diversity and, indeed, celebrate diversity.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports a wide range of measures with good track records.

Many countries have created ombudspersons, parliamentary committees and other national institutions for human rights.

Several have made special efforts to settle land claims for aboriginal peoples.

Others have given special human rights training to their judges, police and immigration officials.

Targeted development programmes, for example for the Roma, have helped integrate minorities into societies. Truth commissions have provided countries emerging from civil conflict with a peaceful channel through which to air long-held grievances and move towards reconciliation.

Prohibitions against spreading ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, and bans against organizations and extremist political parties that promote or incite racial discrimination, have also proved effective in many countries. Indeed, freedom is not absolute licence; it carries with it responsibilities towards others.

Education, of course, has a central role to play. But education is not just a matter for schools. Some countries have taken special measures to integrate immigrant journalists into national and regional broadcasting enterprises. The business community can raise public awareness through its hiring and other practices, as I have urged it to do in my Global Compact.

Athletes have tremendous capacity to bring people of all races and nationalities together; think, for a moment, of what it meant to indigenous peoples to see Cathy Freeman light the Olympic torch in Sydney last year, and remember how athletes banded together against apartheid. And education must begin at home; after all, that is where many racist attitudes have their origins.

There is a clear international dimension to this effort.

United Nations covenants and treaties have raised global awareness of human rights, put legal protections in place and served as the basis for national laws. Reports and recommendations of relevant United Nations committees have often led States to take action.

Our development work, peacekeeping operations, human rights programmes and humanitarian assistance work all have the principles of equality at their core. The United Nations is also a forum where nations can share their "best practices" for promoting tolerance -- an essential ingredient in the formulation of public policy.

Some of the most important work at the moment is being done by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. With recent convictions for genocide, rape, war crimes and crimes against humanity, we are seeing important blows struck for accountability and against impunity.

The presence of former President Milosevic in The Hague gives resounding confirmation to the principle, proclaimed so memorably at the Nuremberg trials, that there are crimes of such gravity that no one can escape answering for them, whatever his or her position in a government hierarchy or military chain of command.

It is my great hope that the Statute for the International Criminal Court will soon have the 60 ratifications required for it to enter into force, so that the Court can take its place in the international legal system and do its part to ensure accountability for those who take racism to the ultimate extreme.

No country is immune from the costs inflicted by prejudice and intolerance. But that does not mean we will find one-size-fits-all solutions. What works in one place will not necessarily work somewhere else. Specific circumstances require specific responses.

Germany, for its part, faces a range of challenges -- some common, some unique. As a prime engine of European integration, Germany has been an important voice for cross-cultural cooperation. Germany has opened its doors to more refugees than any other European country. It recently established an independent institute of human rights, and last year the Nuremberg Human Rights Centre was given a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) award for human rights education.

This city of Berlin, a crossroads city, is increasingly multicultural. It hosts a growing Jewish community, and a beautifully rebuilt synagogue that I had the pleasure to visit two years ago. Germany is clearly engaged in a strenuous and impressive effort to respond to the challenges posed by its history, by reunification, and by manifestations of intolerance.

And yet, your work is far from over. Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of racist-related incidents, and continuing reports of ill-treatment inflicted by law enforcement officials on foreigners, including asylum seekers as well as German citizens of foreign origin.

Germany now appears ready to accept significantly more immigration. Though this is being contemplated to bolster the workforce as the profile of Germany's population grows older, it also has major implications for German society.

I would like to commend Germany for this important shift in thinking, which is a welcome change from the xenophobia and political manipulation of fear of foreigners that we have seen all too often in Europe in recent years.

Germany will have to plan well for the social and human rights aspects of this continuing demographic transformation, not least by educating people about the contributions immigrants make to the country's day-to-day life. I hope you will all take to heart the message of a poster created by the United Nations refugee agency; the caption read: "a bundle of belongings isn't the only thing a refugee brings to his new country -- Einstein was a refugee".

I also hope Germany will be active at the Durban conference, sharing with other nations its experiences in fighting intolerance.

The months leading up to the conference have opened up deep fissures on a number of sensitive issues, such as the legacy of slavery and colonialism, and the situation in the Middle East. If the conference is to succeed, there is an acute need for common ground.

We must find ways to acknowledge the past without getting lost there; and to help heal old wounds without reopening them.

We must deal with the past, but most importantly we must invigorate the future.

We need a programme of action, not a lapse into recrimination. There is much that Germany can do to help.

Let me close by quoting a few lines from a poem that has been brought to my attention. It was written in the last few months by a 14-year-old schoolgirl in this city.

Please forgive the rough translation:

They attack foreigners, punks, the disabled and Jews,
One day, soon, they will attack me and you.
That's why each of us must look deep inside,
At what our surface is trying to hide.
For if we do not know what's in here,
Can any of us walk the streets without fear?

This schoolgirl challenges all of us, throughout the world, to act. Some of you may get involved by marching in the streets. Others may publish academic studies or articles in the press.

I hope that all of you, in the spirit of this free university, will be involved personally in rooting out the evil of intolerance. Together, we can build communities -- and indeed an international community -- of rights and respect for all.

Thank you again for this honorary degree, and best wishes to you all for the success of your studies and beyond.

* *** *