Ref. :  000025361
Date :  2006-09-09
Language :  English
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Volga Forum Declaration

Final document of the International Conference “Dialogue of Cultures and Inter-Faith Cooperation”
(Volga Forum, Nizhniy Novgorod, 7-9 September 2006)

1. The International Conference on "Dialogue of Cultures and Inter-Faith Cooperation", which took place within the framework of the Russian Federation's chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, represented a milestone in efforts to foster intercultural dialogue since the Third Council of Europe Summit (Warsaw, May 2005). The participants drew inspiration from the Russian chairmanship's slogan: "For a united Europe - without dividing lines". The Russian Federation, whose history and culture are inseparably linked with those of Europe, possesses a unique cultural, ethnic and religious diversity constituting not only a historical legacy but also a creative potential for both Russia and Europe in the 21st Century.

2. The participants rejected the idea of a clash of civilisations being at the heart of present-day instability. It is in the interests of all cultural, ethnic and religious communities that such misleading and provocative ideas are not used as a factor of political mobilisation. Although the insensitivity of some towards the global outlooks and cultural traditions of others is deeply regrettable, attempts to put views across through violence or threats are totally unacceptable.

One way of responding to these challenges from the strategists of conflict between civilisations is to promote effective intercultural and interfaith dialogue and cooperation at local, national and international level. The aim of such a dialogue, which is a major priority for both the Council of Europe and national governments, is not a mere exchange of views but the attainment of social harmony respecting political diversity - on the basis of the recognition of internationally accepted human rights - and thereby greater security in Europe and the world.

3. The Council of Europe's approach to culture and religion and to means of communication, dialogue, achieving consensus and preventing conflict is first and foremost based on the principles and standards developed over the years by the Organisation, in particular through the European Convention on Human Rights. Its activities are rooted in the European Cultural Convention and the Faro Declaration on the Council of Europe’s strategy for developing intercultural dialogue, and involve a wide range of actors. Among them, the Parliamentary Assembly (1) and the Commissioner for Human Rights (2) have played a special role in recent years to integrate the religious dimension into the Council of Europe’s action to foster intercultural dialogue and understanding.

4. Intercultural dialogue and, more broadly, cooperation are general approaches to understanding the historical heritage of civilisations, drawing lessons from the past and promoting joint responsibility for a common future. These approaches, pursued through education, cultural and intercultural relations, information and human exchanges, as well as joint intergovernmental and non-governmental projects, contribute to securing peaceful stability in the long term and averting the threat of terrorism.

It is clear today that, besides the existing socio-economic factors underlying international instability, cultural and religious ignorance - including lack of knowledge of one's own and others’ culture and heritage - provides fertile ground for rejection, extremism, terrorism and war. In this connection, value-driven education and cultural practice (such as education for democratic citizenship and human rights education and the promotion and encouragement of cultural expression) are becoming essential tools in combating hatred and intolerance as well as overcoming barriers caused by efforts of certain political forces to exploit cultural and religious ignorance for their own political ends. In this respect, the participants expressed their support for the project aiming at setting up, in the framework of the Council of Europe, a pole of excellence on human rights and democratic citizenship education, taking into account the religious dimension.

5. Challenges and opportunities for cultural diversity

Recalling that cultural diversity has been recognised as a factor of human development and a manifestation of human liberty in the United Nations Human Development Report of 2004, the participants welcomed the inclusion of the democratic management of cultural diversity as one of the priorities of the 3rd Council of Europe Summit. This should remain a core concern, especially with a view to the new realities of a globalised and interdependent world. However, explicit policies that lead to effective delivery tools and actions are urgently required. The participants offered their strong support for Council of Europe’s work that ensures the cohesion of societies based on the principles of the acceptance of difference and freedom of expression.

Russia, with its important history of cultural diversity in terms of religions and religious beliefs, languages, models of society, distinct ethnic groups and experience of intensive migration processes, regards cultural diversity increasingly as a resource. The country has adopted specific Federal Programmes for social and cultural development of ethnic groups as well as legislation for independent cultural organisations ("National Cultural Autonomy", 1996). The participants acknowledged Russia’s experience in moving from conceptual to policy frameworks, and from policy to action, and noted that the new “Culture of Russia” Plan (2006-2010), explicitly targets the preservation of the countries’ multi-ethnic cultural heritage. They welcomed Russia’s contribution to ongoing Council of Europe collections of policies and practices, providing a valuable tool to all member states, and its support of cultural and heritage conventions.

The participants stressed the importance of the local and regional levels of governance in contributing to the democratic management of cultural diversity and the promotion of intercultural dialogue, as well as the fundamental role that local/regional authorities, working closely with individuals and groups in civil society, must play in shaping respective policies. An effective cultural diversity process requires the open participation of each citizen, with special attention paid to the participation of minorities. Citizenship is affected by global migration; individuals are increasingly living in transcultural contexts, often with multiple identities. The participants agreed that the European debate on cultural diversity will be enhanced if it incorporates the notion of multiple belonging and the richness of its cultural landscape as an asset for Europe.

6. The religious dimension in intercultural dialogue

The participants reaffirmed their commitment to the universal values and principles which form the common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty, public ethics, civil responsibility and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy. They stressed that these values and principles should not contradict the continent’s cultural and religious traditions and cannot be challenged nor undermined. Attempts to draw them into conflict are the results of ignorance or manipulation. Still, the promotion of these values will greatly benefit from discussions between politicians and ethnic, cultural and religious communities.

The freedom of conscience, the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression constitute fundamental values, as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and developed in other Council of Europe instruments and in the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. These cannot be limited except under the strict conditions foreseen by the Convention.

As they generally do at national level, religious organisations must have an opportunity to participate in European dialogue and discussion of all topical problems at international level, including the different aspects of respect for human rights, social cohesion and cultural diversity. This will enable them to contribute in a meaningful way to the pan-European project embodied by the Council of Europe.

The participants paid tribute to the pioneering role played in that context by the Human Rights Commissioner. They welcomed the newly established policy of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of inviting religious leaders and consulting with religious organisations on relevant topics. They felt that the time had indeed come for the Council of Europe to develop appropriate mechanisms for an open, transparent and regular dialogue with religious organisations.

7. The role of the media in intercultural dialogue

The participants stressed that the media can make a positive contribution to fostering a culture of understanding in a pluralistic society. With due regard to the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information and to the media's indispensable independence in a democratic society, media could be encouraged to reflect society's diversity, particularly in the context of audiovisual programming, and to report on ethnic, cultural and religious matters in a sensitive manner, avoiding demeaning stereotypes and generalisation and providing insight into each community's own diversity.

Media self-regulation is an important element in this context, and for reconciling the right to freedom of expression and information with respect for human dignity and the protection of the reputation or the rights of others. Other responses, especially of a regulatory nature, must respect obligations under international law and conform to the relevant case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.

The participants supported the Council of Europe's work towards the implementation of relevant items of the Action Plan adopted at the 7th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy ("Integration and diversity: the new frontiers of European media and communications policy", Kyiv, March 2005), particularly as regards freedom of expression and information in times of crisis and diversity and pluralism in times of globalisation. They emphasised the need to encourage the media’s contribution to intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, and the interest of instituting an award for media which have made an outstanding contribution to conflict prevention or resolution, understanding and dialogue.

8. The participants expressed their support to reinforce national mechanisms for the protection of human rights and national minority rights. They underlined the importance, in this respect, of action taken by the Council of Europe and its relevant member states, including the Russian Federation, to fulfil their obligations under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The rights of the followers of all beliefs and traditions, whether majority or minority, newly implanted or long established, all beliefs and traditions must be respected, on the condition that they themselves respect the fundamental values enshrined in the Convention.

9. One example of effective cooperation forged in the course of history is the Volga region, where there has traditionally been peaceful interaction between the different ethnic and religious communities. Here, it is not just tolerant attitudes and intercultural dialogue that have developed in the course of time, but practical cooperation and joint action. Mutual influence, common action and joint responsibility for regional stability characterise the historical example of the Volga region, which is an asset for the Russian Federation and an example of a Europe without dividing lines.

10. The participants expressed keen interest and strong support for the Council of Europe initiative to prepare a “White Paper on intercultural dialogue”. They invited governmental and non-governmental organisations, as well as religious organisations in Europe, to play an active role in this process. They also welcomed the prospect of 2008 being designated "European Year of Intercultural Dialogue" and underlined the pertinence of the Council of Europe’s contribution, drawing from a greater Europe, to this event.

11. The participants pointed out that the development and strengthening of interfaith dialogue received a new and important stimulus at all-European level especially during the Russian Federation’s chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It was noted with great pleasure that the next chairmanship of the Republic of San Marino expressed its interest and willingness to continue these initiatives.

(1) Cf inter alia Rec 1396 (1999) on religion and democracy, Rec 1687 (2004) on combating terrorism through culture, Rec 1720 (2005) on education and religion and Res 1510 (2006) on freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs.

(2) Cf the final documents of the conferences and seminars in Syracuse, Italy, December 2000; Strasbourg, France, December 2001; Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, December 2002; Malta, May 2004; and finally Kazan, Russian Federation (International Seminar on "Dialogue, tolerance, education: the concerted action of the Council of Europe and the religious communities"), 22-23 February 2006.

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