The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world, demonstrating our fragility despite all the technological and scientific advances we have made.
Sadly, we have seen fragmented responses to a multidimensional crisis, division instead of unity, lack of solidarity instead of joint action. COVID-19 hit at a time when the world was already turning inward.
There was a reversion toward individualism and nationalism, and the retreat from multilateralism was magnified under the lens of the pandemic.
The novel coronavirus virus infected people indiscriminately, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Yet, paradoxically, we have seen a surge in stigma, hate speech, and racist discourse vilifying communities for their color, ethnicity or religion. These patterns of behavior, not uncommon before the pandemic, often lead to fragmentation and violence.
By allowing the pandemic to tear apart the fabric of our societies, we would cause unprecedented damage to our world.
History is a great teacher. But the human mind does not always have the capacity to retain and revive experiences and use it to learn lessons.
The 1918 flu pandemic, which claimed almost 50 million lives worldwide, was labeled as the “Spanish Flu”, although it originated in Kansas city in the United States. This political context underlying the stigma should be taken into account. Similarly, since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen some countries trying to assign the blame for the pandemic to others.
Given the aforementioned global context, in what way is the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations relevant? What would the modus vivendi look like? Can intercultural and interreligious dialogue play a constructive role in cementing societies again? How can plural and increasingly complex societies live together, peacefully and respectfully?
Is it enough to save the planet, which is utterly crucial, if we do not know how to share it and live together peacefully, respecting the equal rights of individuals and communities around the world to participate in their societies?
These are some of the fundamental questions the UN Alliance of Civilizations has been grappling with since its inception almost 15 years ago. The complex, demanding dialogue of civilizations, cultures, and religions is necessary, possible and fruitful. It is a critical tool against isolation, mistrust, and confrontation. It is also the most powerful vector for understanding and tolerance.
Yet it is a tool that has been often overlooked. Dialogue is not a simple process, but if we fail to cultivate it, the situation can give way to a monologue or to mutism, which is conducive to conflict and violent extremism.
The UNAOC was created to serve as a coalition against extremist forces, a movement of collective will to advance mutual respect for cultures, traditions and religious beliefs, and a platform to bridge divides and overcome prejudice, stigmatization, misperceptions and polarization.
The alliance promotes collective action in society as a means of addressing the threats that emerge from the hostile perceptions that incite violence, overcoming cultural and social barriers, reducing tensions and improving relations between societies and communities with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, and combating violent extremism.
The challenges we are facing today are becoming more daunting, the urgency to address those fundamental questions increases every day, and the mandate of the UNAOC as a diplomatic tool for conflict prevention and resolution becomes ever more relevant.
The UNAOC is actively working under its five pillars, to which it brings a multidisciplinary and multi-perspective approach: media, migration, education, youth and women. These pillars seek to address intolerance, racism, discrimination, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, by empowering the younger generations as critical agents for social change; by enabling people to acquire intercultural competencies and critical thinking skills; by training and empowering youth leaders to create and implement community-wide activities to prevent violent extremism; by developing a “Rapid Task Force” comprising a pool of cultural and religious advocates and advisers who can be called upon to facilitate dialogue in identity-based conflict settings; by building critical media literacy skills and training journalists; and by fostering the role of women as sociocultural mediators and negotiators.
While addressing a number of cross cutting issues, the five priority areas of UNAOC provide an essential organizing structure for the development and implementation of various programs and initiatives, which all play a critical role in reducing cross-cultural tensions and building bridges between global communities.
Without doubt an all-of-society approach is imperative in overcoming the challenges posed by COVID-19. Civil society, women, grassroots organizations, community-based organizations, religious leaders and faith-based organizations all play a vital role.
In assisting the most vulnerable populations, these networks help create economic and livelihood opportunities and adapt responses to the community context.
The ancient Silk Road tells us a story of human progress, as well as economic prosperity. Similarly, the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative tells a story of human progress. It aims to connect people, to connect ideas, and to facilitate the exchange of goods.
But we should not forget the cultural element inherent to this initiative: the people-to-people connectivity. Let us always remember the first words of the UN Charter, “we the people” which have underpinned international relations since the end of World War II.
It is “we the people” of today’s world who are called upon to find ways to address our differences, both peacefully and respectfully, and to find opportunities to live and thrive on the planet that we are rightly striving to save. Racism and all forms of discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, color or gender is an affront to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I remain committed to continuing to provide a response and adopting an innovative approach to turn current challenges into opportunities to achieve a more inclusive and peaceful world, as well as fulfill our ultimate goal of “one humanity, many cultures”.