First Alliance of Civilizations Forum

When, in 2006, the United Nations launched the Alliance of Civilizations, many preferred to compare it to a half-empty glass rather than to a half-full one. And it was received with some skepticism for various reasons. Either because it lay itself open to the very theories of a shock of civilizations that it was intended, but unable, to combat, or because it added to a plethora of existing initiatives, or because its aims were completely disproportionate to the scant means at its disposal, or because, within the framework of the global fight against terrorism, it sounded more like heavenly music than a bugle call of foreign policy. In May 2007, when I was appointed high representative, my motto was caution, confidence was my battle cry and certainty that the alliance would fill a political void my epigraph. The first Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations was inaugurated in Madrid today. It brings together a wide range of people from the four corners of the world: representatives of national governments, international organizations, foundations, academic centers, NGOs, religious leaders, confessional groups, entrepreneurs, youth and the media. The expectation surrounding the forum is threefold: It will mark a strong moment in the commitment by governments and by the international community to invest in the alliance as a global space of governance of cultural diversity as the fourth pillar of sustainable development; it will be a laboratory for partnerships and for the launch of joint fieldwork involving practical projects in the areas of education, youth, the media and migration; and it will mobilize public opinion around the alliance so as to turn it into an initiative open to citizen participation. At the Madrid forum, therefore, the alliance will be provided with new drive that, I hope, will mark its definitive turning point to concrete, practical field work. A great deal of its future will be played in 2008. Either we shall be able to divulge the alliance and anchor it the regional processes under way, integrating it into the respective agendas (I am thinking of the European Union, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Ibero-America, the African Union and the Council of Europe, for example), or we shall find it hard to double the cape of good intentions. Either we shall be able to include it in the states’ internal agendas, or we shall be left standing in the field of debates and rhetoric. Either we shall succeed in mobilizing civil society or we shall compromise our ultimate goal, which is to aim for small improvements in the field that will bring fresh hope to the peoples. In our world, marked by such profound imbalances, it is not just the planet that is showing an advanced state of degradation, but also the human atmosphere. Nevertheless, if we unite our efforts, we will be able to improve dialogue between mankind to turn cultural and religious diversity into an opportunity for the true, sustainable development of societies worldwide. We know that the history of nations, of religions and of civilizations is made up of light and dark, that periods of peace have alternated with those of war, moments of confrontation, conflict and intolerance, with a will for dialogue, for openness to our fellow men, for a culture of difference, tolerance and universalist values. The complex, demanding dialogue of civilizations, cultures and religions is necessary, possible and fruitful. It is the best counterpoint for isolation, mistrust and confrontation, and also the most powerful incentive to openness, understanding and tolerance. But it also shows us that it is not easy and that, if not taught and cultivated, it gives way to monologue or silence, almost always the yeast of dangerous extremist attitudes and fanatical urges. Indeed, at times, cultures also tend to affirm their identities through confrontation with others. And cultural peculiarities, legitimized by religious or ethnic factors, have acted as vectors of conflict and domination. Each civilization, each religion and each culture, within itself, must therefore be tolerant and recognize freedom of conscience and the right to difference. Not only because intolerance of a culture or religion is proportional to intolerance within itself but also because intolerance of a culture or religion is not stable but has varied throughout time. The complex international situation created in the wake of September 11, 2001, as well as of all the other terrorist attacks that have constantly marked this decade, has turned dialogue between civilizations, religions and cultures into a humanitarian urgency that cannot be postponed. Therefore, the Alliance of Civilizations is the right initiative, at the right time. Together, we shall work to ensure that it will also bring about the right results, not some day, but right now, at next week’s forum. Let us hope that this will be so. Jorge Sampaio is the UN high representative for the Alliance of Civilizations.