11 April 2006

Secretary-General Highlights "Need to Unlearn Our Collective Prejudices", in Remarks on Accepting Seville Node between Cultures Award

NEW YORK, 10 April (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of remarks by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan upon accepting the Seville Node Between Cultures Award today, in Seville, Spain:

Thank you for this recognition of the United Nations work to promote civilizational dialogue.  I thank you for giving me the first "Nodo" Prize.  I am particularly honoured to have been considered for this award alongside humanitarians such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shireen Ebadi, Amin Maaluf and Professor Marquez Villanueva.

It feels especially appropriate that this award is conferred in Seville, a city steeped in Eastern and Western traditions, and to be here during the Holy Week makes it even more special.  Indeed, through much of its history, Seville has prospered as a mosaic of peoples, contributing to the Iberian peninsula's rich civilization.  Like the United Nations, the city truly is, as the name of your foundation suggests, a node, connecting East with West and North with South.

A millennium ago, while Europe was still in the grip of the "Dark Ages", the Iberian peninsula was being enriched by the interaction of Christian, Islamic and Jewish cultures and traditions.  These exchanges, at times, gave rise to hostilities and conflict.  Yet, it was learning and the growth of ideas that bequeathed the more lasting legacy, benefiting all humanity in the process.

Regrettably, so many centuries later, our "enlightened" age faces rising extremism and intolerance.  You are all are aware of recent manifestations of these in many parts of the world -- sometimes accompanied by violence -- which have strained relations between communities and nations of different beliefs and cultures.  There is a danger that the essential dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians may be reduced to an angry exchange between the fringes.  That would happen if moderates on each side allow extremists to speak for them, and assume that extremists on the other side represent the whole of their community.

Clearly, there is a need to unlearn our collective prejudices.  Instead, we must all promote a continuing dialogue, based on the premise that diversity -- in thought, in belief and in action -- is a precious gift, not a threat.  We must educate ourselves and our societies to go beyond stereotypes of the other, and to avoid simplistic categorizations that exacerbate misunderstandings and prevent real problems being tackled.

World leaders recognized this critical need when they met in September in New York last year.  In the Outcome Document of last year's World Summit, they collectively acknowledged "the importance of respect and understanding for religious and cultural diversity throughout the world".  They declared that, "[i]n order to promote international peace and security, we commit ourselves to advancing human welfare, freedom and progress everywhere, as well as to encouraging tolerance, respect, dialogue and cooperation among different cultures, civilizations and peoples".

Spain has taken a leading role in this endeavour.  Last year, together with his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Zapatero initiated an Alliance of Civilizations at the United Nations.  This timely initiative responds to the need for a committed effort by the international community -- both at the institutional and civil society levels -- to overcome prejudices, misconceptions and polarizations, which potentially threaten world peace.

The Alliance's ultimate aim is to promote the acceptance of shared values of tolerance, equality and individual dignity, supported by a framework of the rule of law.

Of course, these same values motivate your work.  I am grateful that, at my request, you are directing the monetary portion of this award to the UN Population Fund.  Specifically, the award will support a project combating sexual violence against women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  My wife, Nane, recently visited this project and met with survivors.  Her experience is difficult to convey, but both Nane and I strongly believe that such projects bring to life, at the local level, our broader efforts to promote equality and human dignity worldwide.

There is a wonderful piece of art by the late Spanish artist Jose Vela-Zanetti which hangs at United Nations Headquarters in New York.  It is a mural depicting the human "struggle for lasting peace" and it tells the story of a family of nations riven asunder.  But it also shows members of that same family, building the United Nations in the hope that it would restore peace, and then defend it for all people, for all time.

Like the builders in Mr. Vela-Zanetti's mural, we will always be in the process of construction.  For it is up to us to strengthen the links between the peoples of our world.  In this, we are all nodes between our civilizations, our cultures, our faiths and our communities.

It is in this sprit that I accept your award and thank you, once again, for this honour and, by having me, you honour the entire UN and the men and women who toil in the name of peace.

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