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Senghor Homage

UNESCO - Dialogue among Civilizations

How we see others,
how others see us

Proceedings of the International Symposium
Paris, 13 and 14 December 2001

Opening Addresses

René Zapata
Director, Division of Programme Planning,
Monitoring and Reporting
Bureau of Strategic Planning


This symposium, ‘Civilizations: how we see others, how others see us’, which is part of the celebration of the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, undoubtedly comes at just the right time: it is clear that we must, on the one hand, strive constantly to shed new light on the interactions among civilizations in a past which, as scientific research progresses, is becoming our common heritage and, on the other, identify ways to meet the challenges of our own times.

To accomplish this twofold task, the scientific community can play a key role by first of all making us aware – and updating us regularly on the knowledge accumulating in the numerous fields involved – of all the different and complementary stages of the past which explain the development of the multicultural dimension in all societies. This gives us a clearer understanding of the interactions, borrowings and exchanges, which, in turn, allows us to grasp more clearly the inner workings of the endless creativity of cultures, and brings to light the individual and collective actions that have led to the building of civilizations and their interactions.

As the symposium programme demonstrates, we need to constantly move from stage to stage in order to understand social and cultural transformations, highlighting the nuances, variations and long-term effects of the range of heritages that we shall be examining in the course of this symposium. At the same time, we must bear in mind that global models are useful only if imbued with knowledge of the practices and behaviour of individuals, and also of microsocieties. In this way, we may perhaps be able to answer the question raised by Chateaubriand in La vie de Rancé: ‘Bonaparte created his century, Louis [XIV] was created by his: which will last longer – the work of time or the work of a man?’

While great efforts have already been made in this respect, much remains to be done in order to expand our knowledge of the interaction among cultures and civilizations. This depends, in large measure, on forging new links between archaeology, history, social anthropology and sociology, to mention only a few of the major disciplines concerned.

UNESCO has launched a number of projects designed to lay new foundations for the study of interactions between cultures and civilizations. Beginning with the East-West project, which has above all provided us with greater knowledge of the civilizations of southern Asia and the Far East, and following that with work on Islamic civilization, the silk roads, the slave routes, the regional histories and the history of humanity, UNESCO has succeeded in mobilizing scientific communities from every region of the world behind a key agenda which today has also become a critical issue for our time.

The dialogue among civilizations took on a political dimension in December 1993 when Samuel Huntington proposed his thesis on the clash of civilizations. Despite the weakness of its historical argument, the thesis has continued to gain ground even, it must be admitted, up to the present time. It has, in particular, lent more force than ever to ideological attitudes that insidiously endorse exclusion by emphasizing so-called radical and/or insurmountable differences between the different cultures and religions of the modern world.

The events of 11 September have dangerously revived these attitudes, and we are faced with a proliferation of increasingly simplistic theories laden with the worst kind of inappropriate associations.

There have been strong reactions worldwide to such extremist views of the conflict between civilizations. Here at UNESCO, at the 31st session of the General Conference, the Member States categorically condemned inappropriate associations which only serve to encourage a tendency towards exclusion, ostracism, denial of the other – a disposition which led to the ravages that disfigured the twentieth century with its trail of crimes against humanity.

By proclaiming 2001 as the Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations, the United Nations General Assembly took a great step forward which not only repudiated the thesis on the clash of civilizations but also, and above all, prepared new ground for dialogue at the highest political level. The adoption by the General Assembly on 9 November of a follow-up plan of action to the Year opened a new chapter in which UNESCO is already fully involved. Today’s symposium lays the first foundation stone.

Moving beyond the sound and the fury of contemporary conflicts, our task must be to make a greater intellectual contribution to strengthening dialogue, at a time when, before our very eyes, a historic transformation – globalization – is taking place in a world of inequalities and blatant gaps, both between and within countries that are forming new and complex perceptions of one another.

This transformation has not yet produced the shared values that its scope and power demand. Such shared values will not emerge as a result of purely economic or legal agreements between States. That is why the critical judgement that you embody has such a major role to play in our time.

Your knowledge of the great transformations of the past, of the transition from one intellectual universe to another, always marked by survivals, renewals and transpositions, is central to our understanding not only of the present but also of the future. This is because the transformation now under way will have a tremendous impact on culture, carrying with it the dangers of standardization but also the development of new focuses for cultures and identities, with nothing short of the reinvention of each group through its past and with regard to others, with all the complexity involved in the recognition of specific rights compatible with human rights legislation, and so on.

Yet do we have a sufficiently adequate vocabulary – hybridization, interbreeding, symbiosis – to begin to describe this new reality, which is, in essence, multicultural? How can we avoid the traps laid in the past for researchers by bland words such as ‘syncretism’ or ‘influence’? How can we get away from labels and concentrate instead on the real content of contemporary dialogue among civilizations?

UNESCO therefore considers your work to be highly valuable. Moreover, it comes at a time when the Organization proposes to strengthen its cooperation with the major research institutions in human sciences, including the École Pratique des Hautes Études, many of whose researchers have already been active participants in UNESCO projects, and the International Committee of Historic Sciences, in cooperation with which UNESCO has launched a series of historical investigations on the interactions between societies and cultures in different regions.

We are confident that this symposium marks the start of a decisive chapter in cooperation with the scientific community and that its work will move forward the dialogue of civilizations, anchored in the distant past, in line with the most pressing concerns of our times.


© UNESCO 2002 | www.unesco.org/dialogue
| last up-dated: 24/01/03