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What the United Nations Can Do to Promote Dialogue among Civilizations — Hans d’Orville


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DIALOGUE AS PANACEA FOR PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE  — Preamble by Terrific Headlines–  A renowned Greek philosopher, Plato is credited with contributing a lot in his specialized fields. Plato was Aristotle’s mentor. His student, Aristotle, was also an extremely influential philosopher who taught Alexander the Great of Macedonia.  ”The trouble with much of what passes for communication today is that it’s all crosstalk. It’s a din, not a dialogue. The noisy chatter reflects the fact that we don’t really know how to engage one another in authentic conversations. ”We simply haven’t learned the skills of listening closely to each other, of engaging in meaningful exchanges, and of finding shared sources of meaning. We lack the know-how and the tools.”(Scott London) The implication in communications is that there are lots of noise in the channels which makes attempts to communicate a mirage. Most times, communication or understanding don’t take place as a result of several factors. In our own situation, so many factors including impatience, tribal, ethnic, religious and other mundane considerations block our attempts to make dialogue work.

The author cited above asserts that:  dialogue is ”a form of discussion aimed at fostering mutual insight and common purpose. The process involves listening with empathy, searching for common ground, exploring new ideas and perspectives, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open. When done well, the benefits can be extraordinary. Long-standing stereotypes can be dissolved, mistrust overcome, and visions shaped and grounded in a shared sense of purpose. People previously at odds with one another can come into alignment with objectives and strategies. New perspectives and insights can be gained, new levels of creativity stimulated, and bonds of community strengthened.’’ It could, therefore, be safely asserted that dialogue could be achieved, only when the four (4) requirements for successful communication is present – the sources, channel, message and the receiver (SMCR) that communicators call the Berlow’s Model that promotes

 IMPORTANCE OF DIALOGUE: It is the contention of Scott London that: ’’Dialogue is every so often required ‘’to be able to overcome differences, find common ground, build meaning and purpose, and set directions together. We need to be able to think together as groups, as teams, as committees, as communities, and as citizens. Genuine understanding seems to be the exception rather than the norm in everyday communication. We speak at each other, or past each other. We speak different conceptual languages, hold different values, and embody different ways of seeing the world. Much of the time, we’re not even listening to each other at all. ‘’It is for the reason of the foregoing that our policies in this country have greatly tilted towards resolving our differences through rational persuasion and moral exhortation. We have continued to manage our political, economic, ethnic, and racial challenges based on the conviction that our growing democracy would, with trial and error endure and wax stronger.

If the reports just coming out of the media are true that Miyetti Allah and their other warring counterparts in Kaduna State have agreed to dialogue for the common good, one of the principal figures who should take the credit for what God is doing in that troubled zone is the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Sa’ad Abubakar who promptly visited recently on a peace-building mission.  This shows conclusively, as Scott London submits, that: ”Dialogue is the most effective response to these developments because, on the one hand, it allows people to span their differences and forge shared frames of reference and, on the other, it gives those formerly excluded from decision-making an opportunity to participate in the process of finding common ground and establishing priorities for action” I have not had a one-on-one interaction from the Sultan but have at least earned a commendation forwarded through his Chief of Staff, Kabir Tafida for my little intervention in Nigeria’s peace process (that was initially unpublicized) in 2015 when Nigeria seemed to be heading towards the precipice. Another commendation came from His Grace Cardinal John Onaiyekan, a deeply respected cleric across the divide. We require more of such truthful interventions by religious and opinion leaders whose words are weighty and respected. The government and the governed must be prepared to listen.

DEMOCRACY & DIALOGUE:  Democracy implies the non-violent political management of difference (of opinion, of ideology, of identity, and so on) within a fair system of rules that apply to all. How is integration or cohesion achieved in a society? The democratic response is: by means of policy formulation and political and legal reform, through a process that establishes and maintains the rules of social justice across all social sectors. However, according to Bloomfield and Ropers (2005, p. 2), “that merely begs another question: how is such policy formulated, how are the rules established, in such a way as to be responsive to diverse opinions and competing interests? The simple answer is, through consultation and dialogue”. It would be easier to support democratization processes if democracy consisted of a unique set of institutions, procedures and practices, but this is not the case. The range of democracies that exist today illustrate that there is no form of democracy that is universally appropriate. While there are commonly accepted democratic values that form the basis for all democracies, the actual institutions, procedures, and practices can vary depending on a society and its people. For democracy to function, it requires the consent of the people. Therefore, concepts such as inclusiveness, participation, ownership, and sustainability are essential for the advancement of democracy

PROTRACTED, INTRACTABLE, CONFLICT & DIALOGUE  The whole world, through the United Nations works through dialogue in a democratic setting. This is also the standard practice in regional and multilateral organizations. There is no society without its own measure of conflicts, even in homes populated by a few family members. It has been held that crises cannot but occur and what is important is that they must be handled in a non-violent and constructive manner.  People must talk and there must be different opinions but must realize that there are boundaries to free speech. Why do conflicts become thorny? ‘’Intractable conflicts emerge from a context characterized by a history of domination and perceived injustice. They regularly occur in situations where there exists a severe imbalance of power between the parties, in which the more powerful exploit, control, or abuse the less powerful (Coleman, 2000) by using salient inter-group distinctions, such as ethnicity or class, to maintain or strengthen their power base. ”Where dialogue fails in any society, chaos becomes imperative. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, (1997) argued that the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals. or nations is through dialogue. ‘’The promotion of a culture of dialogue and non-violence for the future of mankind is thus an important task of the international community.”

PROBLEMS MILITATING AGAINST DIALOGUE      It is very true that these feelings are still very much entertained by the political class and their followers till the present time. Having established the reasons for the failure of the previous political dispensations to operate an enduring democratic culture and the true practice of federalism, it would seem appropriate to examine the prospects and constraints.  Given the diverse nature of our country and diverse interests of the constituents, it would certainly appear that the decision of our early nationalists to operate federalism as a form of government was attractive to them because they felt it suited our political requirements.  Regional and tribal lines are prominent features of the system in Nigeria.  It also paved the way for originality and healthy competition. It is for this reason that the defunct Western Region was clearly ahead of other regions in terms of development. Already, there are strident calls again for consultations only six years after the 2014 National Constitutional Conference held. It is obvious that people fight to gain control of the centre because it is very attractive.

Critics believe that what we have at the moment could at best be described as semi-federalism with the central government still performing some functions that should ideally be left for other units of government to handle. People will continue to talk because our society is an enlightened one. Dialogue remains the best way to change a system. We must exercise extreme caution and avoid inflaming passions.  The implications of a radical and uncoordinated approach to solving the national question must not be allowed to prove too costly for us as a nation. Emotions have undoubtedly run high.  But we cannot afford to bottle-up emotions.  Usually, there is always heat at negotiating tables because human beings cannot reason the same way.  Without any doubt, reasoning together at any level in the form of dialogue would profit us as a nation and douse tension to a considerable extent.

The national assembly has been on this task for long. Members could be requested to graciously double-up their activities on constitution review so that contentious issues are resolved and the two other tiers of government that come cap in hand to Abuja don’t fizzle out.  We must expect both reasonable and unreasonable demands. There will be insatiable pressures by territorial communities, even if they are not viable. There will also be calls for a true federal arrangement. Dialogue is the word for solutions to these issues.  In this regard, political scientists have called for the re-invention of the political currency of Nigerian Federalism.  As rightly argued:  The answer lies in the creation of institutional and fiscal incentives that can promote the efficient mobilization and utilization of resources, and, thus, the expansion of the national cake, by all governments and segments,  thus, discouraging our preparation for the sharing of a shrinking national cake”. Rotimi T. Suberu  (1993) Let us now examine what dialogue could do in shaping a better political culture in all societies. The piece below by Has d’Orvive, a former Assistant Director-General of UNESCO contributed to a UN publication titled: UN CHRONICLE (2011) comes in handy.

What the UN Can Do to Promote Dialogue among Civilizations By: Hans d’Orville

A publication: UN Chronicle, (2011) was put together to mark a decade since the United Nations General Assembly declared the year 2001 the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. At the same time, 2011 also represented the tenth anniversary of one of the most traumatic terrorist attacks of modern times. The juxtaposition of these two events show, more than anything, the need for a firm commitment from all Member States of the United Nations to reduce and eliminate any notion of an ill-defined “clash of civilizations” which is rather a “clash of ignorances”, through authentic dialogue among civilizations, cultures, and peoples.

CONFLICT BEGINS WHERE DIALOGUE CEASES: FORMER UNESCO DG IRINA BOKOVA:  Dialogue is not only a “necessary answer to terrorism but, in many ways, its nemesis,” and one of the most effective ways “to promote the best in humanity.”1 It implies reciprocity of communication and the acceptance that truth does not and cannot belong to a singular group alone. Irina Bokova, in her contribution tagged “The Dialogue of Cultures: New Avenues for Peace’ asserted that “conflict begins where dialogue ceases”, it is essential to search for ways past political fragmentation and strive to find common ground for debate. Thus, the ideal of authentic dialogue among people belonging to different cultures and civilizations has never lost momentum or its driving force. It must just be adapted to an evolving political landscape in the current era of globalization.

The concept of dialogue among civilizations is not new for the United Nations. On the contrary, it is part of its fundamental structure, as underlined by former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan: “The United Nations itself was created in the belief that dialogue can triumph over discord, that diversity is a universal virtue, and that the peoples of the world are far more united by their common fate than they are divided by their separate identities”(Kofi Annan quoted in Address by Koïchiro Matsuura on “Dialogue among Civilizations and Universal Values” on the occasion of his visit to Peterhouse, University of Cambridge(2004).     

The Organization is meant to be “the natural home of dialogue among civilizations; the forum where such dialogue can flourish and bear fruit in every field of human endeavour. “United Nations General Assembly, Fifty-sixth session Agenda item 25)  Today, faced with a new set of challenges, the United Nations must uphold once again its founding values and build through innovative approaches the basis for dialogue creating a new culture of belonging. The outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, as well as the UN System Task Team report: Realizing the Future We Want for All,  put forward a clear agenda aimed to build and maintain peace through more inclusive, people-centred sustainable development. At the same time, both documents named globalization as one of the most important forces shaping our world today, with a vast influence on intercultural dialogue.

As the globalization process increasingly opens societies to one another and diversifies them internally, the new threats to peace are becoming political, social, economic, cultural, and environmental and sometimes a mix of all. They can take the form of intra- or inter-states tensions which may turn into conflicts, wars, transnational disease vectors, global terrorism, tsunamis, floods and droughts, water resources disputes, misuse of cyberspace, as well as the joint effect of all these forces, in producing disruptive social transformations and traumatic human population movements. These phenomena drastically change the conditions for dialogue and building lasting peace. While growth has spread in every continent, old inequalities remain and new ones are emerging. New technologies are bringing people together, yet many feel threatened, confused, foreign and excluded in this environment. Deep changes have touched not only the way in which we communicate but also the communication pathways, transforming many people into outsiders caught in a web of irreversible transformations.

As is evidenced in the persistence of glaring inequalities between and within countries, it becomes clear that our economic development is much more advanced than our political development. While dynamic intercultural encounters should, in principle, generate a positive impact on people and the societies in which they live, in many cases they generate anxiety and fear of identity loss. The growing connectivity, simultaneity, and interrelatedness of our daily lives generate randomness of encounter. Cultural borders are often negotiated in communication patterns of 140 characters (as in Twitter), caricatures or status updates on social networks. Thus, misunderstandings are no longer an exception but a growing trend, influenced by a certain absence of self-reflection, in the sense used by Edward Said in Orientalism when discussing the cultural construction of “the Other.” — Hans Köchler (2009)

It becomes urgent to rethink the intellectual and moral foundation of progress and reaffirm the humanistic values that should inspire the attitudes, behaviours and actions susceptible to produce, through dialogue and the free flow of ideas, global peace and shared prosperity. Indeed, greater account must be taken of the close links between cultural diversity, dialogue, development, security and peace. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) highlights the roles of education for all, shared science, resilient cultures, and accessible communication and information networks to build green, open, inclusive and participative societies where dialogue as a process becomes a universal need and aspiration, defying prejudices, established certainties, even fundamentalism and other radical attitudes.

In the context of diminishing resources, rising inequalities, and shifting demographics, dialogue remains central: “Without this dialogue taking place every day among all nations—within and between civilizations, cultures, and groups—no peace can be lasting and no prosperity can be secure.”6 Thus, there is a clear need to make authentic dialogue among cultures and civilizations a reality of our daily lives. It is essential to bring across the message that the richness of the diversity of human cultures is something to be celebrated and deepened, not feared.

Taking all of this into account, how can politics enable a dialogue among cultures and civilizations in a broad sense? How can the United Nations lead reconciliation processes between the values of individuals and communities with universally shared values, without preventing local cultures from thriving and developing? Which tools are meant to help us re-imagine the limits of our own “cultural and civilizational life-worlds”7 and make a place for more people, nations, creeds, and cultures?

There are no simple answers, but it is clear that in a complex world where a sense of shared vulnerability fuelled by polarized perceptions and intercultural dissent can lead to violence and conflict and the spread of fanaticism and extremism, the United Nations must highlight our unity of purpose and establish common goals. The Organization can demonstrate, through contributions by all organizations of its system, that dialogue among civilizations is one of the strongest tools in overcoming the poverty of our imagination and the present financial, moral and ethical crisis.

Dialogue among cultures is at the backbone of UNESCO’s action and is deeply entrenched in UNESCO’s Constitution, which asserts “that a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”. Therefore, UNESCO seeks to advance, “through the educational, scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind” by adapting its vision and action to the local and international contexts. “Ignorance of each other’s ways and lives”, the Constitution continues, “has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war”.

Over the years, UNESCO’s investment in dialogue among cultures has been tremendous. From vast international undertakings like the early Major East-West Project in the 1950s, over the renowned Silk Route and Slave Route initiatives, which are still being broadened today, to the inclusion of interreligious and interfaith dialogue. Indeed, the concepts used to shape the common aspirations of humankind have evolved alongside the international landscape. In this regard and in a rather chronological manner, the terms of “tolerance” (1995), “culture of peace” (2000), “dialogue among civilizations” (2001), “intercultural and interreligious dialogue” (2007) and more recently “rapprochement of cultures” (2010) were used to describe this conceptual, political and programmatic approach. Nevertheless, the one of “culture of peace” for which the International Year for the Culture of Peace (2000) and an International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010) were created, both of which UNESCO has been designated as UN lead agency, remains a mobilizing concept as it encompasses, inter alia, respect for diversity, dialogue, human rights, gender equality and democratic participation to achieve international security. But has the world learned very useful lessons substantially from the efforts of all these multilateral and regional institutions? We must re-examine ourselves.

UNESCO has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the lead agency for the implementation of all resolutions related to the “culture of peace”, defined as consisting “of values, attitudes and behaviors that reflect and inspire social interaction and sharing based on the principles of freedom, justice and democracy, all human rights, tolerance, and solidarity, that reject violence and endeavor to prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation and that guarantee the full exercise of all rights and the means to participate fully in the development process of their society” (A/RES/53/243).

Following the events of 9/11, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilizations” and assigned UNESCO the lead role within the UN system. The Global Agenda provided inspiration and a common framework for future action, stating, inter alia, that dialogue among cultures and civilizations is a process aimed at attaining justice, equality and tolerance in people-to-people relationships, whose objective is to bridge the gap in knowledge worldwide about other civilizations, cultures and societies, to lay the foundations for dialogue based on universally shared values, and to undertake concrete activities, inspired and driven by dialogue.

The last years saw a decisive strategic move away from the conceptual discourses to a more practical level of action with new actors. Several steps were taken to that end, such as the focusing on activities and a move from the global to the regional arena, for a more concrete development of strategic objectives. One of UNESCO’s most successful initiatives in the field of intercultural dialogue is the annual Summit of the Heads of State of South East Europe, an event that cements dialogue and cooperation in a region torn apart by civil strife and war not so very long ago. Ten annual Summits of the Region’s Heads of State have thus far been held yielding concrete measures for regional dialogue, especially driven by the power of culture and cultural diversity. They constitute an exemplary record of vision, political will and commitment to act and bridge divisions through dialogue and promote cooperation.

Acknowledging that the paths to conventional dialogue shift permanently, in 2010, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova created a High Panel on Peace and Dialogue of Cultures in which eminent thinkers, artists and practitioners from different regions of the world, and with different intellectual backgrounds and orientations, imagine new avenues through which lasting peace can be developed, building on dialogue and reconciliation. As inter-civilizational dialogue must draw on the contribution of multiple stakeholders from all walks of life, in 2008 UNESCO also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the then newly created Alliance of Civilizations, in order to maximize their complementary roles. More recently, UNESCO adopted a new Programme of Action for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence during its last General Conference in November 2011 which aims at making peace a tangible reality for all.

In a world of intricate interdependencies, where a conflict anywhere can spread conflict everywhere, it becomes urgent to understand that peace can disappear at once, even in countries where it has a long tradition. Lasting peace rests on a complex and fragile web of daily practices embedded in local settings and the most ephemeral encounters that individuals and communities creatively maintain out of the conviction that it constitutes the sustainable conditions for living together in dignity and shared prosperity. Endowed with a “soft power” mandate, organically integrating the culture of peace, sustainable development and knowledge societies, UNESCO has the ambition and responsibility to foster inclusive creative change, to remain a lookout post for new challenges to lasting peace and to stimulate positive action through prevention, mediation, reconciliation and intercultural dialogue. To this end, UNESCO is working along certain strategic directions:

  • Strengthening peace and non-violence through formal and non-formal education to achieve intercultural skills, such as empathy, spontaneous solidarity and hospitality reflecting the diversity of contemporary societies in an active, honest and lasting dialogue;
  • Fostering social cohesion and inclusion, pluralist and democratic participation, notably through the empowerment of women and youth; Harnessing the media and ICTs to promote peace, non-violence, tolerance and intercultural dialogue;
  • Promoting heritage and contemporary creativity as resilience tools for building harmonious interactions through dialogue;
  • Reinforcing the role of education, the sciences, culture, communication and information in their capacity to create sustainable and inclusive knowledge societies in all regions of the world.
  • challenges of the dialogue among civilizations. Culture is an inexhaustible resource for nurturing dialogue and rapprochement.

 LIVING TOGETHER IN PEACE   UNESCO seeks to advocate, through all its actions, a vision of a new humanism as a path to global ethics for the twenty-first century and thus to respond to the In finding new ways of living together, the UN and its agencies must reinvent their approaches to intercultural communication and create premises for open dialogue. The fabrics of communities, cultures and civilizations are the narrative we first tell about ourselves, the stories we believe in. The UN can make these stories heard and understood at a profound level, and add a deeper awareness of the existence of the “Other,” with its related history and values. In light of the above, what is required now is a set of specific institutional and policy mechanisms to assure that they are suited to the special political, technological and planetary conditions of our present era. To that end, it is imperative to adopt a holistic approach of policies conducive to human dignity, freedom, equality, mutual trust, shared responsibilities and intercultural solidarity, thus making sustainable peace the custodian for humanity’s sustainable future.

Hans d’Orville was  Assistant Director-General for Strategic Planning, UNESCO.