Promoting inter-cultural dialogue in south east Europe

Almost three years on from the inaugural regional ministerial conference in Sarajevo, TransConflict participated in the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Conference for South East Europe in Belgrade, Serbia, on 11th April 2012.

In a video address, Jorge Sampaio, the former president of Portugal and current High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, explained how, “the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations was created after nine eleven and the sequence of terrorist attacks in various parts of the world, at a dramatic time when violence, hatred, anger and fear looked as if they dominated people’s lives and international affairs. By then, the old divisions of the Cold War were replaced by new fault-lines and also by some imaginary divides. These new fault-lines stand for idealogical views, misconceptions, stereotypes and bigotry…[leading] to a rise in racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, including in particular, discrimination against persons based on their religion or beliefs.”

Ms. Mirjana Kosic, the executive director of TransConflict Serbia, spoke in the high-level debate on “Energizing [intercultural] dialogue and cooperation in the region to shape a better future”.

After Dr. Helena Barroco, special adviser to the UN High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, delivered an overview of the Alliance of Civilizations’ action plan for the region, Mr. William Infante, the UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia, opened the discussion by emphasising the importance of partnership, embodied in the UN’s Country Partnership Strategy, as a means of ensuring that individuals and institutions act “more inclusively and less discriminatory.” One measure of progress concerns the level of connections between people – for instance, Facebook connections between Serbians and Albanians – as a proxy for measuring the changes induced by various media and advocacy campaigns.

Ms. Katerina Stenou, director of the division of cultural policies and intercultural dialogue at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), outlined three important considerations pertaining to cultural diversity; namely, the importance of reflecting upon the good and the bad elements of one’s own culture; upholding conviviality by respecting other visions of the world; and demonstrating a willingness to change one’s culture – not because of external models or pressures, but because of an internal process of contemplation. “Only then can we speak of cultural diversity as a virtuous circle for dialogue”, Ms. Stenous asserts.

Ms. Kosic stressed that “one thing that we sometimes neglect is that most contemporary conflicts are identity-based – not solely ethnic or religious identities, but also based on gender or sexual orientation.” Reinforcing inter-cultural and inter-ethnic dialogue is therefore imperative to overcoming stereotyping, generalizations and misconceptions.

Ms. Kosic also underlined that “intra-religious or intra-ethnic dialogue is just as important…with important implications for how that very group relates to other groups.” Ethnic or religious groups are not homogenous and should not be considered as such; “understanding this leads to a more comprehensive stratification of groups and individuals themselves”. Intra-community dialogue can therefore open up some interesting nuances and understandings that can facilitate and strengthen inter-community dialogue.

Ms. Kosic pointed out that inter-ethnic dialogue has tended to “remain at a rather symbolic level” and that in order to “go beyond mere tolerance…spheres of joint interaction are necessary”. Ms. Kosic added that, “inter-cultural dialogue as part of peacebuilding efforts must never be perceived as an end unto itself, but as consistently working towards securing a sustainable peace”. The continued commitment of NGOs to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland is testament to this. In addition, Ms. Kosic emphasized the importance of incorporating individuals or groups that are generally invisible or more difficult to work with, but vital to conflict transformation.

The second south east Europe ministerial regional meeting will take place later in the year; a follow-up to inaugural regional ministerial conference in Sarajevo in 2009, which resulted in the adoption of the Sarajevo Declaration. The Autumn 2012 meeting will assess progress-to-date regarding the planned activities, and the preparation of concrete projects for the two year action plan on implementing the UNAOC Regional Strategy on Intercultural Dialogue and Cooperation in South Eastern Europe; focusing upon key areas such as education, media, youth and migration as a means of promoting inter-cultural dialogue, co-operation and reconciliation.

The action plan will be built upon six main thematic areas, including reconciling diversity and social cohesion; education as a tool for conflict prevention and peace-building; combatting stereotypes and misconceptions; developing inter-cultural dialogue skills and competencies; gender equality and empowerment of women; and cultural and development – tourism, arts and sport.

TransConflict will continue to support the United Nations Alliance of Civilization (UNAOC) to improve understanding and cooperation across cultures and religions; a prerequisite for countering polarization and extremism.

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