OSCE Conference on Tolerance: 13-14 September 2004
Helen Lewis, Local International Learning Project, INCORE attended an international OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight Against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, in Brussels, alongside Karen Scrivens, Sai Pak Chinese Community and Conor McArdle, Craigavon Traveller Support Committee.
The purpose of the Conference was to deliver a clear and distinctive message on the value of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, the unacceptability of racist, xenophobic and discriminatory actions and attitudes, and to arrive at action-oriented results to combat them.
More than 700 government officials, non-governmental organizations and expert speakers attended this third in a series of three OSCE events on related topics held this year. The first one in Berlin focussed on anti-Semitism while the second, in Paris , was on hate propaganda on the Internet.
Full Conference Agenda
In his opening remarks to the Conference, the OSCE's chairman in office, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, underlined the urgency of the task at hand:
"Xenophobia is the product of a timorous conscience, namely of individuals who lack sufficient self-confidence who do not feel secure in their personal status."
He said that Islam and Muslims now form a key challenge for the OSCE.
"We understand that the Islamic world now expects the OSCE to confront a fast-emerging negative phenomenon, namely [attacks] on Muslims and Arabs, and incitement against Islam and its followers. It is indeed the aim of this conference to reaffirm our decisive response against all forms of intolerance, racism, and discrimination in the OSCE area. Thus, I believe, we have incorporated the legitimate concerns of all Muslims in the OSCE area into our agenda," Pasi said.
Tragically, Pasi noted, the urgency to deal with developments in the Islamic world has been magnified by the outburst of terrorist attacks over the past years. Pasi dedicated the conference to the families of the victims of terrorist attacks this year.
"The shocking images from Bali , Indonesia recently, and from Beslan [in] North Ossetia on our television screens filled us with revulsion and deep sadness as the brutal terrorist acts led to the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, including many children. I hope you all will permit me to dedicate this conference to the families of those who were killed, injured, or hurt in the terrorist acts of 2004," Pasi said.
Speaking on behalf of the host country, Belgium 's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt summed up the challenges facing his country and Europe at large. Belgium has proportionally one of the largest immigrant communities in the EU, many of whom are Muslims. Verhofstadt regretted that attitudes in his country are not changing fast enough.
"Many of us had thought that globalization, television, the Internet and people's increased eagerness to travel would lead to greater tolerance in Europe and the entire world. Unfortunately, we are regularly confronted with just the opposite. We have all witnessed the progress, in many countries, of ultra-right wing parties which hardly refrain from spreading racist messages. And, even worse, we are witnessing a trend of increased racist violence," Verhofstadt said.
Verhofstadt called for greater dialogue with the Muslim community. He said that it is equally important to focus on educating and increasing the historical awareness of Belgium 's young people.
"In the light of recent racist incidents, I have concluded that young people in my country are often not sufficiently aware of the horrible consequences that racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism have had in the past. They are not aware of what people went through because they happened to have a different color of skin, religion, or origin. I am shocked at how quickly this can be forgotten," Verhofstadt said.
H.E. Guy Verhofstadt further noted the importance of adopting and enforcing coherent, national and international legal frameworks to combat racism. He also described the EU and OSCE as international projects established in reaction to racism.
H.R.H. Prince Filip of Belgium suggested that it is fear of ‘others’ that often develop into cycles of rejection and violence. To break these cycles it is necessary to:
1. Denounce intolerance.
2. Promote respect.
3. Provide education.
4. Promote core values.
Another keynote speaker, Jordan 's Prince Hassan, echoed many of these concerns but noted:
"With all due respect with all this talk of tolerance, Mr Chairman, may I say that I prefer the word 'respect.' I don't want to [have to] tolerate you and you don't want to [have to] tolerate me. But I think if we can learn to respect each other's traditions -- particularly at a time in world history when it seems to me that events are determined by exceptions rather than by rules -- we need to develop a continuum of commitment to respect the other," Hassan said.
Prince Hassan said the West should spend more time on promoting multiculturalism rather than trying to prohibit and outlaw discrimination and racism. He said pluralism, not assimilation or emphasis of differences, should be the answer. He also criticized rulers of Arab countries for hoarding billions of dollars of oil revenues, while their citizens go uneducated. Prince Hassan suggested that further research is necessary to develop our understanding of: the causes and effects of migration; the levels of racial equality in various countries; and the interplay of poverty and discrimination with racism, xenophobia and discrimination. In conclusion, Prince Hassan highlighted the importance of education and the media in promoting respect.
Another keynote speaker, Patriarch Bartholomeos, the spiritual leader for 300 million Orthodox Christians, offered this analysis of xenophobia.
"Xenophobia is the product of a timorous conscience, namely of individuals who lack sufficient self-confidence who do not feel secure in their personal status. Strangers are thus regarded as a threat, as posing a hazard. It is precisely when we do not feel efficient in our self-assurance and confidence that we consider others, especially strangers, as the root cause of our worries and turn against them in the hope that by removing them we remove the danger that ostensibly threatens our being," Bartholomeos said.
The patriarch, who lives in Istanbul , went on to make clear that he was most worried about "indigenous majorities" in countries where intolerant majorities make them scapegoats "for their [own] backwardness and failure to progress."
Other speakers during the Conference:
- Called for stronger legislation against discrimination at the national level and for the implementation of National Action Plans.
- Argued that different forms of intolerance and discrimination are unique, however, the fight against these different forms is in many ways identical. It is important that we avoid creating a hierarchy of victims and ‘isms.’
- Called for minimum standards of integration rather than assimilation
- Suggested that ‘citizenship’ involves not only rights but responsibilities.
- Called for resources to be directed to projects that address the needs of victims of intolerance to prevent ‘violence that is not transformed being transferred.’
- Argued that we should be careful not to apply racial analyses to non racial issues.
- Noted the tension between different approaches to combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, for example, between approaches that emphasize integration and those that focus on empowerment and addressing disadvantage.
- Suggested that providing people in broader society with hope enables them to accept social change.
- Called for attention to be focused on the intellectual roots, concepts and ideas upon which racism has been built as well as visible incidents of violence and discrimination.
The conference ended with a declaration condemning, in clear terms, all forms of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, while urging OSCE participating States to respond effectively to acts motivated by intolerance.
In their declaration, participants:
- Condemned all organizations and individuals promoting hatred or acts of racism, xenophobia, discrimination or intolerance.
- Rejected the identification of terrorism and extremism with any religion, culture, ethnic group, nationality or race.
- Declared unambiguously that international developments or political issues never justify racism, xenophobia and discrimination.
- Committed to enacting or strengthening legislation that prohibits discrimination; to promote educational programmes to foster tolerance and combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination; to promote and facilitate an open and transparent interfaith and intercultural dialogue and partnership; and to take steps to combat acts of discrimination and violence against Muslims in the OSCE area.
- Agreed to act against discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia against migrants and migrant workers, to combat hate crimes and to collect and maintain reliable information and statistics about hate crimes motivated by racism, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance.
- Tasked the OSCE´s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to systematically collect and disseminate information throughout the OSCE area on best practices for preventing and responding to racism, xenophobia and discrimination.
The OSCE Conference on Tolerance provided participants from community-based groups in Northern Ireland with the opportunity to:
- Compare and contrast the fight against different forms of intolerance within Northern Ireland and internationally.
- Observe international decision/policy-marking with regard to the fight against racism, xenophobia and discrimination.
- Learn about actions taken by different governments at national and local levels, and about best practices from OSCE states in dealing with problems relating to intolerance and integration.
- Network with official delegations from OSCE states (especially from United Kingdom and Ireland ), representatives from international organizations such as Council of Europe and European Commission, and a wide variety of non-governmental organizations.