A Global Quest for Tolerance - 1995 United Nations Year for Tolerance

Upon an initiative by UNESCO, the United Nations decided to proclaim 1995, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of both organizations, the International Year for Tolerance.

International years are occasions to generate fresh thinking, debate and awareness. Most often, they focus on a specific target group, field of action or issue. The International Year for Tolerance, for the first time, put the accent on a personal virtue that is increasingly viewed as a political and legal requirement for peaceful co-existence.

The appreciation of diversity, the ability to live and let others live, the ability to adhere to one's convictions while accepting that others adhere to theirs, the ability to enjoy one's rights and freedoms without infringing on those of others, tolerance has always been considered a moral virtue. Tolerance is also the foundation of democracy and human rights. Intolerance in multi-ethnic, multi-religious or multicultural societies leads to violations of human rights, violence or armed conflict.

How do we achieve tolerance, fifty years after the signatories of the United Nations Charter resolved to "practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours", and more than two hundred years after Voltaire led his fervent philosophical battle against religious intolerance and the bigotry and injustice that it legitimized?

The Year for Tolerance was the occasion for launching and testing new and old ideas, and generating public awareness. Individual projects ranged from use of traditional and local teaching methods-such as puppet-shows for children-to the use of exhibitions, music and films to generate knowledge of other cultures, religions and ways of life.

UNESCO's tolerance-building efforts were deployed in conflict zones - a multi-ethnic television station, NTV99, was set up in Sarajevo with donations from several European countries-and in post-conflict societies-reconciliation and reconstruction projects brought old enemies in Burundi, Mozambique and El Salvador to focus on their collective needs and common future.

Schools were the year's centre of activity. UNESCO produced and sent out Tolerance: the Threshold of Peace, a teaching guide, to thousands of schools around the world and asked teachers for evaluations and suggestions. Schools everywhere organized class discussions, essay and drawing contests, information weeks, festivals and student exchange programmes around the theme of tolerance.

UNESCO created a prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence and another prize for children's literature in the service of tolerance. The Year also drew some very original initiatives by individuals who wanted to express their personal commitment to tolerance and contribute to the public awareness campaign. Six of the world's greatest artists designed six flags as symbols of tolerance, and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Pierre Cardin, produced and offered a set of each to every country so that the flags can become timeless reminders of tolerance to millions of people.

On 14 July, another Goodwill Ambassador, Jean-Michel Jarre, drew one and a half million people to his free concert for tolerance in Paris, which was also broadcast on television to millions of viewers.

Tolerance, multiculturalism, global diversity, religious and cultural dialogue were among the topics that were debated in over fifty national, regional and international meetings throughout the year. Serving primarily as occasions to exchange views and knowledge, these meetings also worked on the definition and requirements of tolerance and negotiated lines of action to promote tolerance and counter the rise of intolerance in coming years. These efforts culminated in the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, which was adopted and signed in Paris by UNESCO's 185 Member States on 16 November 1995.

The Declaration qualifies tolerance not only as a moral duty, but also as a political and legal requirement for individuals, groups and States. It situates tolerance in relation to the international human rights instruments drawn up over the past fifty years and emphasizes that States should draft new legislation when necessary to ensure equality of treatment and of opportunity for all groups and individuals in society.

In addition to pledging to promote tolerance and nonviolence through educational policies and programmes, Member States declared 16 November the annual International Day for Tolerance.

Tolerance: the endangered virtue

The most immediate goal in proclaiming 1995 the International Year for Tolerance was to generate awareness among both policy-makers and the public of the dangers associated with contemporary forms of intolerance. Since the end of the cold war, there has been a steady increase in social, religious and cultural conflicts. Too many have quickly turned into full-scale armed conflicts; too many fundamental human rights have come under direct assault, too many lives have been lost.

What does the revival of historical grudges and armed conflict in the Balkans have in common with the alarming increase in the number of racial assaults in Western Europe? What formal relationship, if any, exists between extremist or supremacist groups around the world? What does genocide in Rwanda have to do with wars led by extremist religious groups in other parts of the world? Is there any link between the violence that targets writers, journalists and artists in one country and discrimination against indigenous people in another country?

The only immediately available answer is that intolerance is on the increase everywhere and that it is killing on a massive scale. Intolerance raises many moral questions. It always has. In the 1990s intolerance also raises political questions. Intolerance is increasingly seen as a major threat to democracy, peace and security. Understandably, the issue is alarming governments and the public. Yet, any talk of intolerance raises more questions than it answers.

Intolerance has been ever present in human history. It has ignited most wars, fuelled religious persecutions and violent ideological confrontations. Is it inherent in human nature? Is it insurmountable? Can tolerance be learned? How can democracies deal with intolerance without infringing on individual freedoms? How can they foster individual codes of conduct, without laws and without policing their citizens' behavior? How can peaceful multiculturalism be achieved?

To address these questions, debates in 1995 brought together governments, social scientists, lawyers, human rights experts, artists and many others. Some solutions have been proposed, a great deal of consensus has emerged. A lot more needs to be done. How much time do we have before the next crisis? As the clock ticks we hear the echo of the words of Zlatko Dizdarevic, editor of Sarajevo's multi-ethnic newspaper Oslobodenje: "In Sarajevo the very concept of the multi-ethnic community is now on trial; our fate may well become your fate."

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