Brussels, 13 February 2007

Introductory remarks by Mr KAREL DE GUCHT,
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium


Madam Chairperson of the Senate,
Mister Speaker of the House,
Distinguished Members of the Parliament,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many of you will remember the commotion caused by Samuel Huntington's 1993-article 'The Clash of Civilizations'. In that article Huntington underlined the importance of culture and civilization in the world order after the fall of the Berlin wall. Conflicts would no longer be fuelled by ideologies, but by differences between cultures or civilizations.

Events of recent years have demonstrated that Huntington rightly understood the importance of the elements that constitute a civilization in this new world order. However, instead of preparing for a supposedly unavoidable 'clash of civilizations', as indicated by Huntington, the challenge today is how to turn these elements of civilization and cultural diversity into an asset rather than a cause of conflicts. That is why Belgium has chosen to support the initiative for an 'Alliance of civilizations' from the very beginning. We have become a member of the so-called 'Friends of the Alliance', an informal group of selected member states of the UN. We contributed financially to the activities of the High Level Panel established by the Secretary General of the United Nations. We also tried to feed the process with ideas.

In my capacity as Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE for 2006, I asked the OSCE to make an assessment of all the organisation's activities that could contribute to the Alliance of Civilizations, and to develop proposals on how the OSCE could increase its efforts. Under the Belgian OSCE Chairmanship, an important seminar was organized in Brussels on the impact of the media, and more in particular the Internet and satellite television, on the way 'the West' and 'the Middle-East' perceive each other. Last June, I handed over the conclusions of these activities to the Secretary General of the United Nations. I am also pleased and proud that we managed to convince the OSCE Member States to take a decision at the OSCE Ministerial Meeting, last December in Brussels, on strengthening the fight against intolerance and discrimination and furthering the promotion of mutual respect and comprehension.
The `Alliance of Civilizations' is a process in the United Nations framework and therefore, in the first place, a process between Governments. Yet, its main objective is to deal with tensions between people, people belonging to different civilizations, people with different cultures, people with different religions and beliefs, ethnic origins, languages,' individual people.

However, people often feel connected to more than one civilization and their identities are often composed of more elements than only religion, language and ethnic origin. Moreover, civilizations are neither monolithic nor immutable. They often have a strong internal diversity and evolve over time. Religion is frequently a part of a civilization and sometimes a very important one. Yet civilizations are more than religion.

It is precisely because the `Alliance of Civilizations' is about people, about individual people, that human rights should be at the core of this process. Human Rights are embodied in the many treaties to which we all adhered to. They are the most formidable achievement of the United Nations. Because they are universal, they are an essential part of the fabric that binds us all together, whatever our civilization and whatever our culture. Under no circumstance can a dialogue between civilisations undermine this universal character.
The dialogue we have engaged in, is not without risks. I was pleased to read the references made on human rights in the High Level Panel's Report. Nevertheless, I feel they deserve a more prominent place. This is also the case for the rights of women and their position in society. The paragraphs on good governance in the report are interesting, but the historical overview does, in my view, not give sufficient insight regarding all endogenous causes of underdevelopment. An underlying thought of the Report seems to be that religion is the main element, and even the only element, of civilizations. If so, I am not sure I can agree. Also, the report mentions the right to practice and choose a religion, but does it mention the right not to believe?

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, let us not dwell on the analytical part of the Report. I would rather invite you to focus in today's seminar on the operational dimension of the process. It is indeed the Report's recommendations which should provide the guidelines for our work. We should select from the Report what is useful and practical. The Secretariat of the Alliance has recently submitted proposals. We appreciate the valuable work that has been done. The proposals put forward relate to migration, education, youth and the media. They are about cross-cultural education, student exchange programs and multilingual and cross cultural TV. We should study all these in detail. And perhaps, before devising yet another ultimately unsustainable plan of action, it might be useful to get a clear view on what has already been done and trying to improve it.

From a tactical perspective, it seems to be essential to have as many States as possible joining in. If indeed major players remain aside, the entire process may lead to failure. In addition, active involvement of civil society is of utmost importance.

Above all, it is crucial to feed the process with more and new ideas. We have just started our dialogue between civilizations. More thinking will be needed, both at the conceptual as well as at the operational level. That is why the Egmont Institute has invited you to this seminar.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I thank you for being here. I wish you a fruitful discussion and look forward to your findings.