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Message of the Director-General on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance ( 16 November 2003)

12-11-2003 - On 16 November 1995, the date of the fiftieth anniversary of the Organization, the Member States of UNESCO adopted a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance in which they affirmed that tolerance is neither concession nor indulgence but rather respect and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.

UNESCO thus set a date with the international community as a whole by recognizing, through the principle of tolerance, the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others.

This international day of collective reflection has today taken on renewed significance because the paradoxes of tolerance are, as we all know, immense: how can we explain, for example, that it may be morally acceptable to permit things which are still considered to be morally wrong? How can we accept, without being overcome by a profound sense of scepticism, that all values and truths are relative and that the appeal of universality is only an illusion? Must we, then, in the name of the tolerance advocated by democratic societies, give up our search for the truth and agree to tolerate everything, even the intolerable?

These are valid questions. They lie at the heart of our contemporary concern with values and certainties and they continue to point up one of the most pressing issues of our times: the relation between tolerance and pluralism. For whereas it is true that pluralism cannot guarantee tolerance, the rejection of pluralism is unquestionably one of the major causes of growing intolerance.

Modern sociology has taught us that the values motivating our actions are not only multiple but also competing and conflicting, without a possible standard measure of what is good and what is just. At the same time, we have learned that tolerance and pluralism strengthen democracy and in so doing facilitate the full exercise of all human rights, thus providing a solid foundation for civil society, social harmony and peace.

If we are to stand up to what is intolerable in intolerance, we must be certain of the fundamental values that we advocate and have to defend. It is on the basis of such a “reasonable consensus”, favouring open societies and their basic values of democracy and respect for human rights, that we can no doubt find a way out of a highly destructive relativism.

The fact is that no society is exempt from the dangers inherent in the absence of tolerance and the violence to which it may give rise. The forces of aggressive nationalism, the lack of religious tolerance and ethnic extremism continue to present new challenges. Tolerance does not, therefore, mean indifference. Tolerance must also be active, combative and self-critical.

We cannot, therefore, lose sight of the process of acquiring the right to tolerance and the duty we have to defend it. That means, in particular, taking measures to thwart all manifestations of hate and intolerance or acts of violence, encouraging and reinforcing harmonious co-existence and relations between ethnic, religious, linguistic and other groups, ensuring that the values of pluralism and respect for diversity and non-discrimination are effectively promoted.

It is my profound belief that this commitment is inseparable from action to foster dialogue among cultures. Indeed we have here a framework with the potential to develop fully the capacity of cultures to agree on common values. Promoting such dialogue represents an act of trust in the willingness of human beings to develop universally valid ethical standards through reflection and dialogue. We should honour and keep alive this trust which has been the essence of UNESCO’s mandate since its founding.

Our nascent century needs to find a sense of meaning, to create a shared perception of things and events, in order to resolve its tensions. I believe that we can do so by engaging in open and ongoing dialogue. May this international day inspire each of us to open the channels of this dialogue in which nothing less than the future of our humanity is at stake.





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