The Third World Meeting of Religions and Cultures is taking place at a critical time. There has perhaps been no period in the history which has so profoundly challenged the wish of decent and honourable people to live together in peace and harmony. Very regrettably, some of this challenge claims a religious base, and can also be linked to a declining respect for cultural diversity around the world. It is of special concern to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and it is a subject particularly important to all our National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies today, for this is World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, a Day with the world-wide theme "Stop Discrimination".
The International Federation's position on these issues has been developed in the closest of consultation with other components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and particularly with the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The National Societies are, of course, present in almost every country in the world, and function as the auxiliaries to their governments in the humanitarian field. As such, and with their community base which draws on the participation in their work of almost 100 million members and volunteers, the National Societies are in a unique position to work with other partners to combat discrimination, to promote tolerance, and to insist on respect for cultural diversity.
This has been a key point for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies since the earliest days of their existence. The issue is central to the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, several of which are particularly relevant to the theme of this Meeting.
The first of the seven Fundamental Principles is the principle of Humanity. Its broad purpose is the promotion of mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace among all peoples.
The second principle, the Fundamental Principle of Impartiality, deserves quotation in full at this Meeting. "It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress."
The Fundamental Principles, even though standing as principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, have also been consistently supported by governments. The Fundamental Principles as we know them today were adopted by governments and National Societies sitting together at the International Red Cross Conference in 1965, and in 1986 they were formally incorporated in the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
These actions coincided with work done by governments in the United Nations, as well as in other international organisations and through national legislation, to work for the elimination of all forms of racial and ethnically based discrimination. The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1969.
For a variety of reasons, no similar legally binding instrument has yet been adopted by the UN specifically on the elimination of religious discrimination, although it should be noted that there have been several cases when the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which receives State reports on their implementation of that Convention, has examined instances of discrimination which stems from religious difference.
Importantly, the Committee has also started to include references in its reports to work done by States to promote multiculturalism and respect for cultural diversity.
But, despite these actions, and despite the very valuable work done in other contexts, including by UNESCO, there is no global instrument within the United Nations system which deals thoroughly with the issues of religious discrimination and disrespect for cultural diversity.
It is not the business of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to identify with any religious positions, but it is very much our business and that of our National Society members to work against discrimination which results from religious intolerance. It is also a strongly held position of our International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to promote full respect for cultural diversity.
It is, in our view, a matter of grave concern that despite the international legislation on the broad issue of discrimination, and despite the hard work of many international organisations and NGOs, the challenges of discrimination and disrespect have not significantly diminished. On the contrary, as paragraph 60 of the 2001 Durban Declaration shows, religious intolerance remains a serious problem in many parts of the world. An even more worrying trend identified by the Durban Declaration was the emergence of increased negative stereotyping, hostile acts and violence because of religious beliefs and ethnic or so-called racial origin.
The same declaration recognised similar issues with respect to the barriers faced by certain groups because of their cultural identity. Equally, problems of xenophobia were prominent in the minds of the drafters of the Durban Declaration, and remain as a matter of high priority for the International Federation and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The International Federation took part in the Durban Conference, and was particularly pleased that States accepted an obligation to consult broadly with civil society and the community beyond government on measures to address these issues. Paragraph 210 of the Declaration contains a message which we see as vital to success in this work - a call to States to involve these groups, which include their National Societies in the partnerships to develop legislation and program action as well as work for its implementation.
I make this point because of the importance of understanding the auxiliary role that National Societies play, alongside their governments. This role, which stems from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 themselves, involves National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies functioning as auxiliaries to the public authorities of their countries in the humanitarian field. It is the basis for the acceptance by the United Nations that the International Federation is an international organisation with full observer rights in the UN General Assembly itself, and from that we have earned the right to involvement in a very wide range of UN bodies.
But, more importantly, it is the basis for the right of National Societies to maintain dialogue with their governments on matters of humanitarian concern. Right now, there are few of more overwhelming importance to communities than subjects related to discrimination.
The forms of discrimination which concern us most commonly, are those which derive from xenophobia. Xenophobia itself, despite its dictionary meaning concerning fear of foreigners, has come to be seen in many communities as involving the rejection of all that which is not seen as "normal" in those communities. In other words, it frequently is expressed through religious discrimination or through outright rejection of people seen as culturally different.
It is also important to note that, as the Durban Declaration shows, this trend was evident before the horrendous events in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, and the International Federation's work programs combating discrimination started well before that date. Those events have, however, contributed to the aggravation of the isolation of some communities from others in the countries where they live. The anxieties of many communities about "foreigners" or people who are different have been multiplied many times since September 2001.
Xenophobia today is a much worse problem that the world is prepared to admit.
The International Federation is working tirelessly to meet this challenge. Through its Secretariat and its membership in virtually every country in the world it is mounting a Global and Local Action to promote tolerance, to combat discrimination, and to secure respect for cultural diversity.
This program is being actively pursued at all levels, but despite the active interest displayed in it, it is clear that there still too little active engagement on the part of governments in meeting the challenge. There are many international debates about the need to combat racism, discrimination and xenophobia, and they usually produce strongly worded conclusions, but follow-up is poor.
The International Federation has recognised that this is a challenge which cannot be met just by the adoption of grand conclusions at intergovernmental conferences. We have sought to involve our entire membership, including at the local level, in our action. This is why the local component in our Action is so important to us. The grass-roots component is also important because many local groups respond best to advice about what works or doesn't work at the same levels in other countries, and because of the connections it facilitates between localities in different cultural, economic and social environments.
To make this effective, we are also seeking to build fresh partnerships with local actors, both with indigenous actors and those which derive their mandate from international organisations. Among those we will be reaching to in this program are National Olympic Committees, so it is particularly beneficial to be able to speak about this program in Athens, the site of the 2004 Olympic Games.
The International Federation has sought to raise the levels of commitment of governments and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. An important recent mechanism for this was a Pledge lodged at the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in December 2003.
The Pledge envisages a very substantial worldwide program of action for non-discrimination and respect for diversity. I will not read it out, for it can be seen in full at http://www.icrc.org/Applic/p128e.nsf/va_PBA/EA514D217C6FB39F41256DEC005F240E?openDocument§ion=PBP. I do, however, want to emphasise some points which are directly relevant to what we are discussing at this Meeting.
- Despite all the negative things which have happened over the years, and despite the difficulties we continually face, the Pledge is couched in a positive direction. We speak of respect for diversity, for example, instead of attacking disrespect. We do not argue for the elimination of discrimination, we speak in favour of a non-discriminatory environment. These might sound like marginal points, but our experience at the community level is that much more impact can be obtained by working for an objective instead of against a practice. It is a matter of psychology, perhaps.
- We seek to mainstream our work for diversity and non-discrimination into all other elements of our work. Again, we find that this demonstrates the practical value, at the community level, of our messages. Our experience is that if people go out and simply speak about the importance of eliminating discrimination, there is often no practical effect until people see how a non-discriminatory environment can improve their own lives and livelihoods.
- We encourage the sharing of experience, and a sharing which involves the communities in the most affected areas working together. The International Federation is the world's largest humanitarian network, and we work hard to ensure that the network functions locally, nationally, regionally and globally - all at the same time. We do not believe, for example, that the North necessarily has any lessons for the South in this or other areas: our network works with the best available partners, which are often others in the same region which have confronted the same obstacles.
The Pledge builds on other commitments which are also very relevant to the struggle against discrimination and partnerships with other actors. One such is Resolution 9 adopted in November 2003 by the supreme body, of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, the Council of Delegates. It too is too long to read to the Meeting, but it is available at http://www.icrc.org/Web/Eng/siteeng0.nsf/iwpList565/453B2BAD46C3D212C1256E01003B9787.
One or two special points are worth making. The Council felt that there had been enough declaratory words spoken about the importance of promoting respect for diversity and non-discrimination. During the debate delegates spoke despairingly of the way Durban had almost ended in political failure. One of the points made was that the debate there, as so often happens with this subject, descends into politicised statements which add no value to the real tasks of communities where the real work must be done.
For this reason, the Council attached an annex to its resolution providing suggestions and ideas to National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies about what they might wish to do on the subject. The resolution also projects a format for the sharing of knowledge gained, and for the presentation of a position paper or guidelines at the next Council session, due in Seoul in 2005.
A final point, which helps bring our work into a special focus, is the importance we in the International Federation and National Societies attach to linkages which can be found between work for non-discrimination of any kind, and proactive support for respect for cultural diversity.
One such, of special significance now, is the link which exists to many other programs through the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations system.
The Goals are set out without any discrimination envisaged, and flow from the principles in the Millennium Declaration which includes, very directly, the collective responsibility of States to uphold the principles of human dignity. Within this, the Declaration acknowledges a duty to all the world's people, especially the most vulnerable.
We attach this concern for the most vulnerable, whose vulnerability is frequently magnified by discrimination based on religious, cultural or other differences, to all our work.
Our starting point in all the work we do is that we are "driven by needs, informed by rights". In other words, the highest priority is always for the most vulnerable, and for addressing the root causes of that vulnerability. That is why this Meeting has such potential to mark out a new path in the fight for human dignity, and we look forward to working with its outcomes, all around the world.