Statements by High Commissioner, 29 May 2014
Son Altesse l'Aga Khan, Excellences, Mesdames et Messieurs, je voudrais tout d'abord vous remercier pour l'opportunité de prononcer cette conférence annuelle au Centre mondial du pluralisme. C'est un véritable plaisir et un privilège. Et je tiens également à remercier la délégation de l'imamat Ismaïli pour son accueil et son hospitalité.
Today, all societies are – or are on their way to become – multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. And for some this is a source of discomfort and unease. In many societies, populist politicians, playing upon fears to obtain mindless votes and irresponsible media, only interested in market shares and infotainment, manipulate feelings of anxiety, fear, and insecurity, creating artificial divisions, disrupting social cohesion and, in extreme cases, provoking persecution and conflict.
We can see this even in my part of the world, in Europe, where, fuelled by the economic crisis and high levels of unemployment, anti-immigration and xenophobic parties are gaining influence as we have now seen recently with European elections. Mainstream parties are unable, or sometimes even unwilling to oppose this effectively. I always try to convince my friends in political parties not to imitate a radical party on xenophobia since people prefer originals not imitations, but I'm not always able to convince them of that.
Xenophobia, racism, islamophobia or the invocation of false identities diminish us all. Not only are they unable to ease the fears of what is new and unfamiliar, they tend to exacerbate them.
The reality is that with an average fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman, Europe needs immigration to sustain its economy and pay the pensions of its aging population. But this is largely an unrecognized truth.
Recently, I saw the results of an opinion poll, where people were asked 3 questions: Do you want to have more children? The majority said: no. Are you willing to do menial work? Again the response was: no. Would you favour more immigration? And again, people said: no!
Now, this is an impossible discourse; an equation without solution. Immigration is not part of the problem of modern societies; it is part of the solution and nobody can prove it better than Canada. Without immigration many of our communities, mainly in Europe would become completely unsustainable.
In other parts of the world where state structures are weak or non-existent and where respect for diversity is destroyed by ambition or corruption, the incapacity to identify common
qualities, the lack of empathy with "the other" and the manipulation of fears by unscrupulous politicians can have even more tragic consequences.
When I returned from a visit from the Central African Republic earlier this year, I had the opportunity to tell the Security Council that I did not remember a field trip in my 9-year tenure as High Commissioner for Refugees that had caused me so much anguish as that one. I was shocked by the brutality and inhumanity of the violence, targeting women, men and even children only because they were Muslims. But my subsequent mission to South Sudan was equally distressing. In Gambella, Ethiopia, I saw tens of thousands of women and children seeking refuge from atrocity. And many of the children were severely malnourished and their mothers told me the horrors of the violence unleashed in their communities.
Until last year, the Central African Republic was largely a stranger to religious violence, which is why it is wrong to characterize the current situation as a religious conflict. Despite the widespread corruption and poverty, banditry and violence, Christians and Muslims had always lived side by side. Religious hatred was one of the few problems the Central African Republic did not have.
State structures had largely disintegrated and banditry was rife when the Séléka seized power in late 2012. The Séléka was an alliance of Central African rebel groups and foreign fighters and was indeed predominantly Muslim, but creating an Islamic State was not part of their agenda. But the widespread looting and killings committed by the Séléka and ex-Séléka members led to the emergence of the so-called Anti-Balaka, a combination of vigilante groups and bandits. While they called themselves Christian self-defence militias, they soon turned into an uncontrollable monster. This gave rise to a sectarian divide, mostly along religious lines, that is now tearing apart the social fabric of the country.
In South Sudan, the rift is not along religious, but ethnic lines. At its independence, the leaders of South Sudan were faced with daunting challenges. This was one of the most underdeveloped places in the world as a result of decades of war and neglect. As aid and money poured in, corruption, ethnic nepotism and competition over power and resources grew. Old disputes re-emerged and the country's leaders, all former rebels, were quick to come up with a military answer to political problems. A political squabble turned into an ethnic conflict when antagonistic leaders rallied support along ethnic lines. Soon Nuers were fighting Dinka on a larger scale than ever before, deliberately targeting civilians and turning against moderate voices within their own communities.
While a religious or ethnic conflict usually starts out with faith or ethnicity being instrumentalized for political purposes, the real danger is that these tensions then gain a dynamic of their own – a genie, that once it is out of the bottle becomes exceedingly difficult to control, let alone put back.
But let's not forget, the origin of the conflict was not religious in Central African Republic, was not ethnic in South Sudan, it was strictly political. It was politicians who turned what has been a multi-religious, multi-ethnic community that lived more or less together without major problems into two dramatic civil wars.
It is against these realities that the voice of tolerance and reason and the values of pluralism need to rise. Diversity is not a threat. Diversity represents the richness of our communities. We must stand together against all forms of irrationality and manipulation that lead to hatred, be it political populism, radical nationalism or religious fundamentalism.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Globalization, that brought many positive things to today's world, has also been unfair, its benefits have been distributed unequally and many have been left out. The paradox of today's world is that money moves freely; goods and services tend to move relatively freely; but people cannot. People are stopped by physical and legal barriers
One of the things I have learned in my years of public life is that markets work. As you might know, I was a member of (and now I have to be strictly non-political) a socialist party, but I understood that markets work. Supply and demand tend to meet. In the global labour market supply and demand will also meet, legally if possible, irregularly if necessary.
Despite barriers, millions of people move from one country to another in the hope of a better future, millions of others to save their lives. They often travel alongside each other, creating the so-called asylum-migration nexus. When international migration is managed by border controls only, in an effort "to keep people out", human traffickers and smugglers are bound to prosper. There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people have to risk their lives to seek safety and where at the end of a dangerous journey, they are not welcome or even turned away. It breaks my heart to see Syrian refugees today being pushed back at the Bulgarian border, and let's not forget that this is one of the European Union's external borders, or drown in the Mediterranean, as they have no other ways to find asylum.
We need more international cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination and concerted efforts to identify opportunities for legal migration. We also need international trade and globalization to become true agents of development. More targeted development programmes, focused on poverty reduction, job creation and the strengthening of governance, rule of law and public services. The problem of governance or the lack of governance and corruption are behind many of the causes of forced displacement. Greater efforts should be made to address the challenges of conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace building, so that when people move, they do so out of choice, not necessity.
Irrespective of cultural, religious or ethnic differences, men and women around the world share a common humanity. Aristotle was among the first to deny that division was the necessary outcome of diversity and this concept has been followed through by many illustrious thinkers, up to today. Seeking to identify the qualities and experiences that unite rather than divide people, pluralism can be a powerful force that fosters more harmonious, peaceful and prosperous societies.
A common value that can be found in all cultures is the idea of giving protection, of sheltering a stranger in need: a refugee.
The word asylum is derived from the Greek word "asylon", or sanctuary, a designated space in each city, often a temple, where people could find safety.
Flight from persecution and the search for a protected space are central themes in all the three Abrahamic faiths, and can also be found in Hindu mythology and Buddhist teachings. The Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt is a central story in the Jewish faith. In Christianity, the flight of the Holy Family from Bethlehem is studied by all children. And for Muslims, the Islamic calendar starts with the year the Prophet (PBUH) travelled to Medina to seek protection as he and his followers had come under threat. When some of the first Muslims suffered persecution in Mecca, they were given asylum by the Christian Emperor of Abyssinia, who withstood great pressure and declined precious gifts, refusing to return the refugees to their persecutors. Similarly, in the early Middle Ages, Jews from many parts of Europe found sanctuary in Al Andalus, where they were allowed to practice their religion and had opportunities to work and trade. In particular, there is nothing in modern refugee law that was not already explicitly contained in Islamic law and Islamic traditions, since the very beginning.
It was only after the horrors of World War II that the protection of refugees became an obligation and an international law. The 51 Refugee Convention establishes who is a refugee and what their rights and responsibilities are. It also spells out the obligations that States have towards people seeking safety on their soil. Non-refoulement, or the no-return of people in need of asylum is the cornerstone of the refugee regime. But this was not discovered by the western world or after the Second World War, but this has been enshrined in cultures and religions since the beginning of time. Building on this, the African Refugee Convention was adopted in 1969 and the Declaration of Cartagena about Refugees in 1984 to respond to specific regional dimensions of forced displacement in Africa and Latin America.
UNHCR was created by the UN General Assembly to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and to find solutions for them. And to fulfil this mandate, my Office works together with a wide range of partners, including the Aga Khan Development Network. We have an excellent partnership with many of the Network's agencies, including in Central Asia, the Middle-east and East Africa. And for that I am extremely grateful to His Highness.
While initially focusing on Europe, by the time Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan was elected High Commissioner in 1965, UNHCR had become operational in much of the developing world. Prince Saddruddin Aga Khan is still remembered with admiration as the man who steered the organization through some of the most challenging humanitarian crises of that time. And he also played, as His Highness may remember, a key role in finding new homes, including here in Canada, for tens of thousands of South Asians who had been expelled overnight from Uganda in 1972.
Today, an unprecedented number of people are uprooted by violence and persecution. One of most dramatic situations is Syria, which saw more than 3 million of its citizens flee the country in little more than three years. Only five years ago, Syria was the world's second
largest refugee hosting country, now Syrians are the largest group of refugees worldwide, followed by Afghans and Somalis. The overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees found safety in the neighbouring countries, where communities are showing a generosity that is well beyond their means.
UNHCR recently registered the millionth Syrian refugee arriving in Lebanon. With 244 registered Syrian refugees for every 1,000 Lebanese, Lebanon already has the highest concentration of refugees than any other country in recent history. This is 295 times as many refugees per capita as the in United States and nearly 52 times as many as in Canada.
In Lebanon, as in most refugee hosting countries around the world, the strain that the large presence of refugees places on services and resources has become unbearable. The world needs to do much more to support Syria's neighbours, recognizing that this conflict has become a major threat to regional security.
And let's not forget that contrary to the populist mantra that all asylum-seekers are on their way to the industrialized world, 86% of the world's refugees live in developing countries, compared with 70% a decade ago. Rather than seeing refugees as competitors and a burden, their presence can be an incentive to advance poor areas. We need to promote the development of refugee hosting areas, involving refugees and local communities, rather than just handing out assistance to the refugees, year after year. Stimulating self-reliance, education and livelihood opportunities for refugees and host communities are key to fostering more harmonious relations and a better protection environment. Instead of competing over scarce resources, host communities and refugees work together to improve their future. I am convinced that this will, ultimately, help stem the flow of desperate people who move on out of necessity.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Canada has a proud history of welcoming refugees. Loyalists – freemen and slaves – fleeing the American Revolution in the 18th century; Europeans leaving behind oppression, persecution and authoritarian states in the 19th and 20th centuries; Latin Americans escaping military regimes and growing numbers of refugees from other parts of the world found sanctuary in Canada.
Canada's resettlement programme is one of the largest in the world. And it offers refugees who can no longer stay in their first country of asylum an opportunity to rebuild their lives. Resettlement is also a practical way of sharing the burden of developing countries that host large refugee populations. I welcome all efforts to maintain and strengthen a global and flexible resettlement programme and encourage Canada to resettle a large number of Syrian refugees at the present moment.
My country, Portugal, has seen many of its people leave. Some because of oppression during 48 years of dictatorship that ended with the Carnation Revolution of 1974, others because of economic hardship. When I was in government, we commissioned a study to find out how well these people had integrated and how they perceived their new countries. The study
found that the Portuguese community in Canada felt more integrated and better accepted than any of the others in the world. The Portuguese living in Canada had the best image of their new country.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Canada is a clear demonstration that multi-cultural, multi-ethnical and multi-religious societies are not only inevitable; that they are a good thing. Diversity and pluralism enrich societies and should be cherished by good governance, strong civic institutions and policies that promote respect for diversity. The recognition of our common humanity, inclusion and solidarity, tolerance and compromise are key elements of strong, cohesive and peaceful societies.
The mission of the Global Centre for Pluralism is to advance global understanding of pluralism as an ethic of respect that values diversity and to enable each and every person to realize his or her full potential as a citizen. I wish you every success in this important undertaking.