Ladies and Gentlemen,
Fear of the unknown Other; perceived as an intruder and danger to our traditions and lifestyles, is similar to the fear of the unknown itself. Throughout our history, this fear has provided fuel for a striking amalgam of ethnic tensions, racial hatred, conflicts of all kinds, and outright wars, the two most destructive of which ravaged our continent.
But it is also true that all wars, however long, end in peace talks. To me, this phrase is symbolic. It is symbolic because it encapsulates both the end and the means – in order to win peace, you need to talk, and listen. You need to have a dialogue in order to conquer strife.
It took September 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks that followed, to make us realise that we must counter a clash of civilisations with a dialogue of civilisations – because we are one humankind, even though made up of different cultures, religions, languages and ethnicities. We are a quilt which can only be sown together through mutual acceptance. This diversity is our strength but also our challenge – the challenge of bridging the gap of knowing the Other, understanding the Other and respecting the Other.
We in Europe, a multiethnic and multilinguistic continent with a long history of destruction and rebuilding, understand better than most the value of unity and the price of division. Even though we enjoyed a period of “cold peace” after the Second World War, the Balkan wars served as a stark reminder that peace cannot be taken for granted. This is why I am especially pleased to be here today, in a region which was torn by wars in the not so distant past but which has recovered at a healthy pace to join the family of European democracies within the Council of Europe. I wish to thank the Serbian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers for the initiative to organise this conference on the promotion of intercultural dialogue, so much needed today, including here in South-East Europe.
This conference has highlighted once again the need for more assertive action to foster and maintain dialogue within our communities – a dialogue which naturally begins at grassroots level, in our cities and regions. This is why the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, which I represent as President of its Chamber of Local Authorities, has made the promotion of intercultural and interreligious dialogue at local and regional level one of its top priorities.
We strongly believe that there can be no lasting democracy without a genuine culture of peace permeating all levels of society – a culture based on tolerance for each other’s differences, the acceptance of diversity, and the respect for each other’s opinions. There will be no lasting peace without genuine understanding of the Other, and we will not arrive at this understanding without genuine dialogue between cultures and religions within our multiethnic communities.
For us, dialogue is not just an instrument in the service of joint action, for it is already a value in its own right. It provides an opportunity not only to open up to others, but also to listen and to make suggestions, on the basis of solidarity and collective activity. Thus others become partners in a structured dialogue intended to deepen mutual understanding and knowledge, showing respect for different views and for various beliefs and convictions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Intercultural dialogue, as envisaged by the Council of Europe as it prepares its White Paper on this subject, is based on exchanges and mutual respect. The Congress shares this approach, the approach that "dialogue is an open exchange of views during which individuals or groups from different cultures, while showing respect for each other, gain a better understanding of each other's world view."
It is in this spirit that the Congress organised, in November 2006 in Montchanin, France, a colloquy on the role of local authorities in promoting intercultural and interreligious dialogue. The colloquy adopted in particular twelve principles for local authorities, aimed at improving knowledge and understanding of the local religious situation, promoting understanding between participants in the dialogue, establishing partnerships, and evaluating the effectiveness of the measures taken. These twelve principles form part of the Congress’ contribution to the Council of Europe’s White Paper.
In February this year, the Congress sent out to territorial communities a questionnaire on intercultural dialogue in the light of the preparation of the White Paper. Without going into detail, I would like to point out that the replies received reflected a wide range of initiatives based on a new understanding of the need for intercultural dialogue at the local and regional level which, in turn, was spurred by growing immigration and the need for integration and reconciliation between ethnic groups. The responses to the questionnaire showed the diversity of situations in today's Europe: the countries which have to manage the arrival of new minorities and those which have to manage the coexistence of long-established minorities; the Europe that has to manage large-scale immigration and the Europe that has to manage large-scale emigration.
This would lead one to expect that there would be very different attitudes and approaches to intercultural dialogue. On the contrary, throughout Europe there is evidence of a common desire and will to put in place some basic rules and policies to manage interculturality at the local and regional territorial level. The replies to the questionnaire also underline the eminent role played by local authorities in promoting intercultural dialogue, in close cooperation with key local actors such as the police, NGOs and religious communities.
The Congress has a great deal of experience in the matter. Our first reaction to the end of wars in the Balkans was the establishment of Local Democracy Agencies (LDAs), in order to build up, through concrete projects, local democracy and to promote confidence-building measures between communities which have been fighting with one another in the recent past. Over the years, these Agencies evolved into the Association of Local Democracy Agencies (ALDA), which is supported by the Congress and which has now expanded its activities to the South Caucasus, with the opening of an Agency in Kutaisi, Georgia, in September last year.
The Congress is also actively involved in creating national associations of local authorities to ensure the good functioning of local democracy, with a particular focus on South-East Europe, where we helped to set up the Network of Associations of Local Authorities (NALAS). With the approval of the NALAS Action Plan this year, the Network has now become fully operational.
But we must now also be looking beyond Europe, towards our neighbours, and I am very pleased that this conference has addressed this issue. Having secured, to a large extent, democratic and peaceful development on our continent, we see it as our task and duty to share our experience and spread the culture of democracy, first and foremost to our immediate neighbours on the southern rim of the Mediterranean, including the Middle East.
In this regard, the Congress has been associated with many peace initiatives put forward by local authorities and their networks, such as, for example, the Municipalities for Peace in the Middle East (MAP) or the Network for Decentralised Cooperation in the Middle East. Both the Union of Local Authorities in Israel (ULAI) and the Association of Palestinian Local Authorities (APLA) have observer status with the Congress, making it possible to develop tripartite cooperation for the sake of peace. The Congress observed two rounds of local elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2005 and organised, in November last year, a round table to discuss ways of bringing European and Middle Eastern municipalities together for joint action. I could also mention our efforts to increase cooperation with the Arab Towns Organisation, and our current work on City Diplomacy, which reflects the growing role of cities as full-fledged actors on the international scene.
I hope that during the coming year we in the Congress will give more attention to the political work of the North South Centre, which I am fully aware is awaiting our proposals for concrete action.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is an old adage that says that the most sacred place on earth is where old enemies become new friends. This is what happens when we learn about one another, and this is what intercultural dialogue is all about. This conference proved it once again. Let us join forces at all levels – local, regional, national and international – bringing on board all actors concerned, to turn our continent, and those beyond our shores, into the most sacred place. The experience of South-East Europe vividly demonstrates that, if we act together, this goal is within our reach.