Alliance of Civilisations “Bridging Cultures” for Peace

UNITED NATIONS, 31 May 2010

Beatriz Bissio – TerraViva Europe

“Bridging Cultures, Building Peace” is the slogan of the third United Nations Alliance of Civilisations Forum which opens Friday [4 June 2010] in Brazil, gathering together some 3,000 heads of state, members of parliament and delegates of international bodies and civil society organisations.

This will be the highest-level international meeting hosted by the city of Rio de Janeiro since 1992, when it was the location for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in a message ahead of the forum that Rio de Janeiro had been chosen as its site because “in this city, as in the rest of the country, people transform their cultural differences into a factor for enrichment.

“We are a ‘ mestiço’ (mixed-race) people, and proud of it,” he said.

The U.N. high representative for the Alliance of Civilisations, Jorge Sampaio, echoed Lula’s view. He told IPS that the forum “is destined to have major repercussions for the future of the alliance, because Brazil has such a culturally diverse society and demonstrates in a very stimulating way that this initiative is a global one.”

Sampaio, a former president of Portugal (1996-2006), was referring to the fact that this is the first time the forum is meeting outside of the Mediterranean area, where it originated, and is being held in South America.

“The change of location will help the initiative to achieve a much fuller representation of Latin American countries from now on,” he said.

Although concrete solutions for the major problems facing today’s world have not been reached, “there has been progress towards the awareness that tolerance and mutual respect are possible between different cultures,” he added in an assessment of what the U.N. Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) has achieved since 2005.

The idea of an alliance to promote dialogue between the West and the Arab-Islamic world and contribute to justice and peace in the 21st century was proposed in 2004 by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The aim was to counteract the idea of inevitable confrontation or “clash of civilisations” espoused by ideologues in the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

In 2005 the idea was taken up by then U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, who created a high level group to promote the initiative.

Among those who have confirmed they will join Zapatero and Erdogan at the forum in Rio de Janeiro are Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, and Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who made his country the 100th member state of UNAOC in May, will be represented in Rio de Janeiro by Esther Brimmer, assistant secretary of state for international organisation affairs.

Sampaio highlighted the change of attitude of the United States since Obama took office, and said Brimmer’s presence was very positive, given her track record in the fields of human rights, humanitarian aid and climate change.

The priority at the forum will be fostering trust, not confrontation; promoting measures to minimise the world’s economic inequalities; and fomenting commercial and cultural exchanges of mutual interest, according to the organisers.

Among the activities leading up to the meeting was a Youth Walk in central Rio de Janeiro May 26, involving young people representing organisations in 62 countries from every continent.

Its route included a symbolic visit to a popular shopping district known as SAARA, the Portuguese acronym for the Society of Friends of Rua Alfândega and Surroundings and also Portuguese for Sahara, the African desert. It was chosen because in an area of a few blocks, immigrants from widely different origins, mostly Arabic and Jewish, live in harmony with a high degree of mutual cooperation.

Because of this it is regarded as the clearest example of the cultural and religious tolerance typical of Brazil.

But South America’s giant also appears to be called to an unprecedented level of international prominence.

The forum is taking place a few days after President Lula signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran and Turkey, which runs counter to attempts by permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to vote new sanctions against Tehran.

In Brasilia’s view, sanctions would only make the situation worse.

Brazilian ambassador José Augusto Lindgren Alves told IPS the government “offered Rio de Janeiro to host this forum because we wanted to show that the dialogue between civilisations cannot be limited to a dialogue between Europe and the Islamic world.

“We want to work for cooperation between civilisations, because we think this is the right way to go and that all countries have to participate in this effort,” concluded Lingren Alves, the coordinator of a new department for the Alliance of Civilisations, created by the Brazilian foreign ministry to deal with matters pertaining to the forum.

“The present conflict is not between civilisations, but between fanatics” who exist in every culture, he said.

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