Promoting a culture of tolerance

Published: 8 June 2008

Contribution by Dr Katrien Beeckman, Head of the Principles and Values Department, at the International Cooperation and Peace Dissemination Workshop on Psycho-social support, organised by the Italian Red Cross (Provincial Committee of Rome), in Rome

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this important workshop. Your decision to give priority to the promotion of a culture of tolerance stands as a strong indication of the inclusive and welcoming nature of the Italian Red Cross, both nationally and – very importantly – at the regional and branch level throughout the country.

I will first look at how tolerance relates to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in particular to our Fundamental Principles, how it has been anchored in statutory decisions by the bodies that shape the direction of the Movement, and how tolerance fits in to the strategic direction of the Movement.

Then we will be looking at what is tolerance, how has it been defined by the decisions and documents of the Movement’s bodies, before going on to what are the root causes of tolerance. Finally we will move on to the role of the Red Cross Red Crescent and how we can promote a culture of tolerance.

Everything we do in the Red Cross Red Crescent should be anchored in our Fundamental Principles.

If you ask people where tolerance fits in, mostly they will think of the fundamental principle of “humanity” – promoting compassion, charity, friendship, mutual understanding and peace. You can’t have peace if there is no tolerance. Or people will see the link with our fundamental principle of “impartiality” – especially the obligation not to make adverse distinctions on grounds like nationality, race, ethnic origin etc.

I would say that it also really relevant to other principles. For example, if you look at the principle of “neutrality” – the obligation to abstain from controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature – this also calls on us to be tolerant.

Also, we can link it to the principle of unity, because unity not only means one Red Cross Red Crescent in one country, but it also means that we are open to all, that we embrace all the differences and are tolerant of them.

And finally, we can also link it to universality, as this means that there is a universal vocation in the Red Cross Red Crescent, which is to promote mutual understanding, friendship and tolerance, and it also points to the fact that National Societies are on an equal footing.

If you don’t consider others to be equal, there is not real tolerance.

How is tolerance anchored in the statutory decisions of the Red Cross Red Crescent?

There are so many decisions that we could sit here all day and discuss them, so I will give you a couple of highlights.

It started very early, with the League of Red Cross Societies, which later became the IFRC. For example in the 1970s, when the Governing Board adopted a plan of action in Tehran in the struggle against racism. This really spelled it out that we had to develop a spirit of special tolerance and that the League should establish special educational programmes promoting brotherhood and world solidarity.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a Red Cross Red Crescent commission on peace, which really explored the role that we have in contributing to true and lasting peace. Peace here was defined as “a dynamic process of cooperation among all states and peoples founded on a respect for freedom, independence, equality and human rights, and a fair and equitable distribution of resources to meet the needs of all peoples”.

I think the word “dynamic” is important – it calls for change and it asks for our constant adaptability and flexibility.

Another important one was in 2001, when the IFRC and subsequently the Movement’s Council of Delegates reacted to the 11 September attacks and made a statement about their repercussions, saying explicitly that the Red Cross Red Crescent considers itself to be enriched by diversity, and that we are determined to intensify our action to reject exclusion in all its forms and to promote a culture of tolerance.

And there are other, more recent, ones. For example, in 2003, the Council of Delegates examined tolerance, and how it relates to non-discrimination and respect for diversity. Also in 2003, at the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross Red Crescent, the IFRC adopted a pledge on non-discrimination and respect for diversity.

As part of the pledge, it made a commitment to better understand the factors that fuel intolerance – because you can’t promote tolerance if you don’t know where intolerance comes from – and to step up our public dialogue and advocacy in favour of tolerance in society.

In 2005, the Council of Delegates really underlined that, if want to promote tolerance, we have to engage in humanitarian education. We have to go beyond the cognitive aspect of education – it’s not enough to know the components of tolerance, the behavioural side is important too, as is leading by example.

Turning to the strategic framework of the IFRC, Strategy 2010 spelled out for the first time that our principles and humanitarian values are one of the IFRC’s four core areas. It also proclaimed the values that we in the Red Cross Red Crescent should promote externally – like respect for human dignity, non-discrimination and mutual understanding.

It highlighted again that the aim of promoting principles and values is not only that other people know about them, but rather that they understand and they can really live them. So, again, it is about influencing behaviour in society.

The role of the Red Cross Red Crescent hence should not be limited to providing humanitarian assistance – it goes beyond, we have a shaping role in society, whether at global, national or local level.

Also, the IFRC’s Global Agenda goal four, “to promote respect for diversity and human dignity and reduce discrimination, intolerance and social exclusion”, specifically relates to principles and values, and says explicitly that we should reduce intolerance.

What is tolerance? Sometimes, it can be a difficult concept. We like to stick labels on things, and one person will give one definition of tolerance, while another person will give another. So let’s not try to label it and look more deeply to see the meaning behind the concept.

Sometimes it is easier to understand tolerance by looking at intolerance. If you are intolerant, you have an attitude where you reject the differences. If someone is not the same as you are – if they are different – you’ll reject it. If you reject it, you will react in one of two ways.

Either you can say “We all need to have the same way we dress, and the same way we eat, the same way we relax after work” – going towards assimilation, where everyone is the same – or you can exclude the group that is different to you, marginalize it, discriminate against it. And of course this could even ultimately breed violence and conflict.

Often people think that tolerance is a passive concept, that people who are tolerant are indifferent, that they “put up” with something. It’s sometimes seen as a negative thing, but that’s obviously not how we see it in the Red Cross Red Crescent.

Tolerance is a freely-given acceptance of a difference that one sees as positive and valued and a direct contributor to programs bringing support and assistance to the most vulnerable.

Tolerance then, in a proactive way, becomes respect for diversity.

The aim of creating respect for diversity is to create a basis for peaceful togetherness. In diversity, we find unity or a common platform, and we cooperate.

Now, let us take a look at the root causes of intolerance, as this has also been highlighted by the decisions of the statutory bodies.

The first root cause is ignorance – a lack of knowledge, of understanding, or a tendency to see the world in black and white with no grey zones. With this attitude, you are convinced that what you know is the truth and that everyone else is wrong. “You’re either with us, or against us”, that kind of ignorant attitude.

Another cause is bias and prejudice and, if we are really honest with ourselves, we are all biased, because we receive this bias as we are growing up.

It amounts to a kind of indoctrination which is carried through life by almost everybody as a result of what they learn through education, the media, one’s parents and one’s culture.

Fortunately today, the youth are in a somewhat more favourable situation with internet and modern communication technology as other sources of information to draw on, in addition to what a teacher or there local environment tells them.

Bias has to be broken by questioning attitudes - but at the same time we have to recognise that the tools of questioning, like the internet, themselves provide a huge amount of misinformation and bias as well .

Another cause of intolerance is fear of things we are not familiar with. Fear of things that do not follow the mainstream.

Humans are a bit like sheep – we want to imitate. We are fearful of “otherness”, but by breaking that cycle – by knowing about other cultures and religions and being exposed to new ideas – you break that fear.

Another cause is a threat to the status quo – a threat to stability.

We all fear change to our established situations – our house, family, job, health – and so we will resent the factors that force change upon us. Take immigration, for example. When migrants are coming onto our territory, many see this as threatening our job or our culture.

And of course we want to place responsibility for this on someone, and that is where the intolerant attitude will come from.

Today, in the context of climate change, we are being forced to face change. What will happen? We will have to adopt an attitude of flexibility, to learn to live together.

Stress is another factor. We are more likely to be intolerant when we are stressed, so we should learn to manage this. If you look at the Fundamental Principle of voluntary service, you give of your own free will but you must renew your energies.

That’s where psychosocial support to our volunteers comes in.

How should the Red Cross Red Crescent promote tolerance?

• Well, we have to walk the talk and be a living example. If you don’t practise what you preach, forget it – you won’t have any credibility. So we have to start with ourselves, and this has been emphasized over and over again in a number of statutory decisions.

We have to show to the outside world that we respect and welcome differences, and we embrace diversity. We can do this by having a diverse composition of staff and volunteers with National Societies. If, for example, the only people in Italy who became volunteers were people of original Italian stock with a university education, what would that show to the rest of the population? That we respect differences? No. It is important to have a mix of genders, ethnic and religious origins, social status, sexual orientation, educational backgrounds etc.

It’s also important to create common platforms so that National Societies from different cultures and backgrounds can share their experiences. Youth camps can be very valuable there as they expose young people to people from different cultures and diversity.

• Another of our roles is in humanitarian advocacy. Because the National Societies have an auxiliary role to their governments in the humanitarian field this puts them in a privileged position to enter into dialogue with the authorities and influence decision making.

For example, in the area of migration, as was underlined by the 30th International Conference, we should provide humanitarian assistance wherever there is vulnerability and need irrespective of legal status.

There’s a debate to have this accepted by governments enabling National Societies to influence humanitarian decisions on migrants in their own country.

• The third role is an educational one, through awareness-raising campaigns that influence perceptions, behaviour and actions. You may remember the HIV/AIDS campaign, “Come closer”, that sought to change people’s attitudes. Now, with the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the South African Red Cross is engaging in an awareness-raising campaign against racist violence.

• The fourth role is in promoting dialogue between different or opposing groups – to be a bridge-builder between different cultures, religions or generations – and working towards inclusion, to prove that we can live together.

• The fifth role is something that we don’t do enough of. We need to anaylse and research, and to this end partnerships with universities are very important. What is fuelling intolerance? What are the trends? And how can we, as the Red Cross Red Crescent that has this role, change alongside society?

• And finally, of course, we need to integrate tolerance and non-discrimination into our operational programming, and specifically identify and tackle issues of discrimination, tension or intolerance. The Bangladesh Red Crescent for instance, pursued a mainstreaming approach, where through building wells in the community, it managed to bring different ethnic groupings together and promote tolerance.

In conclusion, let us ask ‘How can we all promote tolerance?’

First, by not applying labels. Let’s value differences, and not see them as a threat but as something positive we can learn from. And let’s also realise that differences often lie in the expression – not in the inspiration or the reason – of things.

We have to treat each other as equals. If we say that we value differences, we must accept that no one culture or religion is better than another, otherwise one cannot develop tolerance.

I would also say that while we have an identity, these identities are multiple.

You may have an aspect to your identity that makes you different to another, but there will be others aspects that bring you closer to that person.

In wider society, we are bound by the commonality of our humanity. Profoundly, every human being has the same aspirations. We want to relate to others and feel a sense of belonging, and we fear isolation. We want to be happy and reassured. And we are all equally vulnerable.

My plea is that we continue to see the Fundamental Principles as a common platform that promotes inclusion and inter-cultural, inter-religious dialogue. If the details are different, fair enough. Let them be different. But the inspiration for why we in the Red Cross Red Crescent are all here today is the same.

It is Henry Dunant on that battlefield at Solferino.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright