United Nations Dialogue Among Civilizations


Speech by Dr. Catherine Tinker

Forum of Canadian Ombudsman

OTTAWA, MARCH 31, 2003

Thank you very much, Mme. Adam, also thank you to your staff and those participating in this first conference of the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman in Ottawa today. It is a great honor to appear before you, and I wish to commend your work in creating trust, ensuring the compact between citizens and government is a fair and balanced one, nurturing the spirit of democracy. It is therefore appropriate to be talking about a United Nations initiative, the Dialogue among Civilizations, in Canada, a nation whose active participation in the institution and its peacemaking and peacekeeping missions worldwide is notable.

On a plane recently, two men seated next to me were talking, as strangers on planes do. One, clearly an American, said, in a voice brimming with certainty, that “The American people all agree that abortion is wrong.” The other man politely murmured something. Immediately you might question the statistical probability of this alleged universality of opinion, and realize that the speaker comes from a country where abortion has been legal for thirty years and still is the law of the land. However, my question to you is this: imagine you are the third person sitting there and you object to this characterization of supposed consensus on a hotly-debated, politically-divisive issue. What do you do?

Imagine your own reaction. Would you speak up and inform both neighbors that the gentleman is mistaken, and in fact there are others equally passionate in their conviction contrary to his position? Would you instead ask a question to initiate a discussion on the topic, eliciting an exchange that might advance understanding of one another’s point of view? Or would you say nothing and go on reading your newspaper? Being a lawyer from New York City, of course, you might expect the option of debate to be most appealing to me, relishing the confrontation and sharpened exchange that might enliven the flight. As my Canadian friends and colleagues have patiently shown me, such a discussion here might be considered impolite, possibly causing offense or dissension.

Can we explore instead the option of a respectful exploration of difference on an important topic involving values? What would that discussion look like? How do we overcome our own level of reticence, questions about our motives, or reluctance simply to give up reading the paper in a rare moment of quiet? What can we hope to accomplish by our choice to respond to the man’s statement – change the speaker’s mind? Justify our own opinion? Or at least speak up to counter the speaker’s assumption of his right to speak for others based on his personal view?

Does your choice differ if all three passengers on the plane are from different parts of the country, the world, or different cultures and religions? Is a real exchange of ideas even a responsibility, an effort to bridge gaps, to cross divides among us? While maybe fellow passengers on an airplane don’t expect to interact on any level beyond ordinary civility during a flight, there are other opportunities for this type of discussion in our daily lives in our communities, workplaces, organizations and places of worship or relaxation where we encounter those different from ourselves. Do we walk away, or engage in dialogue?

What is this dialogue I am suggesting? A positive exchange, respectful of difference, and seeking commonality and willingness to learn something from one another, characterizes a “dialogue,” a form of communication distinct from debate, argument or other efforts to persuade others. What I hope to do today is explore the technique of dialogue as developed through the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations, discuss our search for common values among a group of Eminent Persons from every part of the globe and many religions and cultures, and suggest how this experience of Dialogue among Civilizations may be interesting for your work as ombuds. After my introduction of the topic, in the hopes of experiencing dialogue here today, we will open the floor for questions and comments.

The United Nations first considered dialogue among civilizations in response to a suggestion from President Mohammed Khatami of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his 1998 address to the General Assembly addressing misunderstandings between the Islamic world and the Judeo-Christian world. The General Assembly designated 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Giandomenico Picco, with whom I worked, as his Personal Representative for the Dialogue among Civilizations. Mr. Annan invited key public intellectuals to join a “Group of Eminent Persons” tasked with thinking about dialogue and formulating the theoretical basis for Dialogue among Civilizations. The group included two Nobel laureates, Amartya Sen of India and Nadine Gordimer of South Africa; then-First Lady of Brazil and sociologist Ruth Cardoso, former President of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker, Dick Spring of Ireland, and former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors of France; academics and scholars of different religions including Tu Weiming of China and Hans Küng of Switzerland; scientists including Sergei Kapitza of Russia and Song Jian of China; lawyer-statesmen including Kamal Aboulmagd of Egypt and Javad Zarif of Iran; and others including Amb. Tommy Koh of Singapore, Prince Hassan bin Thalal of Jordan, Hanan Ashrawi of Palestine, Lourdes Arispe of Mexico, Hayao Kaway of Japan and Graça Michel of Mozambique.

This group practiced dialogue during a series of private meetings hosted by several governments (Austria, Ireland, and Qatar), searching for ways of communication that would realistically address the problems and issues of humanity and the planet, honoring differences of opinion and perspective among the members of the group. The results were published as a book entitled Crossing the Divide: Dialogue among Civilizations, a work presented to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who then distributed it to every member state of the United Nations prior to a special session of the General Assembly in early November, 2001.

The Dialogue among Civilizations is a starting point, an attempt to recognize the best in human beings, to encourage all of us to aspire and act on those aspirations, to celebrate those who do the right thing, no matter how difficult or dangerous the circumstances. In these times, when war seems about to begin with terrible consequences for the values and hopes and lives of so many around the globe, it may be naïve to talk about common values and the wish for dialogue. But we faced the same issue in those days after September 11, 2001, in New York City. In terms of completing the UN Dialogue among Civilizations manuscript and publishing before the end of the year, or abandoning the project in the face of this event, we decided to push even harder to finish it. This choice, it seems to me, was the right thing to do, given the great urgency of our project then — and now. Without dialogue, how do we ever understand ourselves and each other? Without dialogue, are we not condemned to a world reverting to blood feud and a never-ending cycle of revenge killings? Without dialogue, how do we trust each other and live as neighbors? When asked how to evaluate the success of dialogue, I find the question may be phrased more accurately as finding war and misunderstanding as the failure or the absence of dialogue in the world. Our challenge is to develop constructive and sustainable “habits of dialogue” in public and official dialogue, in our institutions and in our neighborhoods, based on discovery of common values and a willingness to take a personal stand for those values against the tide of inhumanity and hatred.

The idea of the dialogue was the hope that this endeavor would begin a process to replace hostility and confrontation with discourse and understanding, achieving the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with the principles and norms of justice and international law. The core values defined in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in other international human rights treaties that have been negotiated over the past half-century, form the essential framework of the dialogue. We sought and considered sources of these values in major religious and philosophical traditions, in historical examples and literary expressions, searching for commonalities as well as celebrating differences.

In our book, we describe a set of values we consider to be universal:
humanity, reciprocity and trust and three pairs of values which form the basis for a global ethic: liberty and justice, rationality and sympathy, legality and civility, and rights and responsibilities. These pairs emerged after much discussion and exchange of views, as it is not so easy to agree on common values in their details and application. For example, every culture or community can recognize the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or in the alternative phrasing, do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you. But when we consider the prohibition of murder, found in every legal and religious system worldwide, immediately exceptions or justifications arise: self-defense, mercy killing or “defense of honor”, all of which have different meanings in different places at different times. Where is our common value now?

In this process, then, the Group of Eminent Persons suggests the values of humanity, reciprocity and trust are universal, along with the four pairs of values which resonate both East and West, both North and South. Based on these values, we suggest a new paradigm for global relations as a result of the Dialogue among Civilizations, the elements of which are: equal footing, re-assessment of the enemy, dispersion of power, stakeholding, individual responsibility, and issue-driven alignments. We then consider how this new paradigm may be reflected in the United Nations in the future and lead to a global ethic, characterized by participation and legitimacy, credibility and reconciliation. Now, how do we get there from here?

The Dialogue is grounded in the belief that our common humanity in all its diversity can be the basis for realizing the goals of global inclusion, and that only through profound engagement can we identify and enhance the values and interests that all civilizations share. Inequity, fragmentation, and divisiveness are affecting people around the globe, leading to egregious assaults on human dignity in many forms (e.g., ethnic cleansing, religious extremism, cultural racism, terrorism and war). Perhaps dialogue cannot prevent these forms of man’s inhumanity to man, but dialogue may provide a tool for the aftermath, the rebuilding and the effort of the human spirit to survive and continue living.

In the end, dialogue may be the most hopeful means of continuing to live together, a tool for managing diversity. Here the examples of South Africa’s reconciliation process through the truth and justice commissions, as well as community policing and the role of peacemaking and peacekeeping troops, offer concrete situations where people are “crossing the divide” on a daily basis, whether it is called “dialogue” and practiced successfully or not. In learning more about your work as ombuds, I suggest you too are practicing dialogue. Perhaps some of the theoretical constructs of the work on dialogue at the United Nations may be useful to you in your important work as ombuds.

Dialogue among Civilizations may also be of general interest here in Canada, where your 1774 Quebec Act officially adopted policies of accommodation of difference, further developed in the Multiculturalism Act of 1972, while your 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms asserted fundamental values for all Canadians. In many ways the Canadian legal and political system is a model for the new global reality, both in its successes and in its challenges. The Chief Justice of Canada, in a recent speech, noted that:

  • On the legal, social and domestic front we debate our differences with passion — the right of women to equal pay, the legitimacy of same-sex families, the place of religion in public life….Why does difference dominate? How can we better manage difference? Canada, like other countries, has struggled with these questions. Sometimes we have answered them with exclusion and violence. Yet even in our beginnings we find another response – the response of respect, inclusion, and accommodation. Accommodation, in this context, means more than grudging concessions……means ending exclusion, encouraging and nourishing the identity of the other, and celebrating the gifts of difference. It is this response that has come to characterize the modern Canada, shaping our thinking and our policy on women, first nations people and the profusion of races and cultures that constitute Canada in the 21st century. Beverly McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada, La Fontaine-Baldwin Lecture, March 7, 2003, Halifax, Canada.

Identity, difference, rights, responsibility — all are important parts of our daily lives, self-image, moral development and ethical positions. Developed through millennia in arts, letters and science in China, in the Arab world, in Western Europe and in the Southern Hemisphere, these ideas have produced a vast body of scholarly writing and commentary. I do not pretend to summarize for you here today all the sources or trace the philosophical roots of these concepts, although I commend you to Amin Maalouf’s book entitled Identités, meurtrières/In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (1996; English tr. 2001) and Saskia Sassen’s book Globalization and its Discontents. Hans Küng’s book A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (1998). Alex Borain, “A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission“, and the writings of Tu Weiming on Confucianism (Daedalus, Winter 2000, p. 195-218) are essential for tracing the threads of dialogue.

  • These issues of identity, difference, rights and responsibility all are raised in one of Nadine Gordimer’s novels, July’s People. A family of white South Africans who consider themselves liberal, face attack in their city home during anti-apartheid riots. They are rescued by their black “houseboy,” July, who saves their lives by taking them back to his village in the veld where he turns out to be a respected leader. Their roles reversed, the former “bosses” find themselves questioning everything they thought they knew about themselves, and the former servant must decide whether to continue to hide and feed the white family, which creates risk for his own family. How they communicate, and how that communication changes under the circumstances, reflects the dilemma of deciding what to do in a crisis. What would you do? What is identity? Or the meaning of difference? Whose rights are they anyway, and who bears responsibility?

In considering these and other questions about our situation in the face of globalization, theorists of “clash,” and those who use religion and nationality to incite violence against the “other,” the United Nations Dialogue among Civilizations Group came to the conclusion that we need a new global ethic based on inclusion and respect for difference, rather than seeing diversity as a threat. It is up to each of us to put this into practice and develop dialogue techniques in our own lives and work, accepting individual responsibility for our choices.

In this context, it is useful to recall several documents of international human rights and their formulations of common values and principles, including the United Nations Charter; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Covenants on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights; various human rights treaties; and documents on minority rights, such as the 1992 United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. While many of these human rights instruments and enforcement mechanisms focus on norms of non-discrimination which rely on a state’s compliance, other developing norms such as humanitarian intervention call for more proactive, immediate commitments to act on behalf of justice and human dignity through international intervention to prevent gross and systematic violations of human rights, regardless of where they occur. The importance of respecting human dignity and common values as reflected in every legal system and faith is the basis for understanding responsibility, not only the affirmation of rights. And in no circumstances can these documents of tolerance be interpreted to justify intolerance in the name of identity or rights of any group.

At the United Nations, many states refer to national ombuds in reporting their progress in addressing human rights issues and ending discrimination against women, racial or ethnic groups, and others to UN committees created under human rights treaties: the Committees on Women’s Discrimination, Racial Discrimination, the Rights of the Child, against Torture, and others. Other examples of ombuds appearing in the work of the UN exist as well. For example, the UN Office of the High Representative for Implementation of the Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina reported that the United Nations Security Council and the Human Rights Ombudsman of Bosnia and Herzegovina demanded a criminal investigation into events surrounding the Mostar incident in 1997, with the results of that investigation sent to a local prosecutor. In Haiti, the UN peacekeeping presence included an Office of Ombudsman (Office de la protection du citoyen), which received 300 complaints in its first two years (1997-1998). Additionally, the Secretary-General proposed creation of an administrative ombuds within the United Nations Secretariat as part of the internal justice system as part of his reform proposals in the mid-1990s. So the United Nations and the ombuds system have many connections and common interests.

In conclusion, then, near the end of Crossing the Divide, the Dialogue among Civilizations is seen as an alternative to war, a means of nation-building after conflict, and a way to respond to the view of diversity as a threat, a notion we reject in favor of dialogue, leading to reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires us to confront the need for justice beyond law and beyond institutions — the justice of the soul, the justice of the heart….Reconciliation demands that we look into the eyes of peace, internal peace, peace with ourselves, first….Reconciliation will demand the inexplicable and yet instinctive acceptance of belonging, of partnerships with our fellow human beings – a partnership and a fellowship that is proven by the cases of human solidarity that move a parent to save the life of a child in danger, irrespective of whether that child is of his or her enemy….
It is reconciliation that may lead all of us, no matter how this reconciliation process is achieved, to discover and to establish a global ethic. A global ethic for institutions and civil society, for leaders and for followers, requires a longing and striving for peace, longing and striving for justice, longing and striving for partnerships, longing and striving for truth. Crossing the Divide: Dialogue among Civilizations, pp. 205-6.

In this spirit at the United Nations, as well as for each of us individually in our lives and work, we can work together to change the mindset that perceives diversity as a threat, that confuses reconciliation with appeasement and justice with retribution. Instead, we can seek to build together on the commonality of our human condition, that which unites us, that which is based on our desire to offer a better, a more just, a more peaceful life for all.

Good luck to us all, to our world leaders, to you in your work. Thank you for sharing this time, and teaching me more about the possibilities of your use of dialogue as ombuds.

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