Navigation and service

Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of UNESCO, Paris

Federal President Horst Köhler delivering his speech Paris, 5 October 2005 Photo: Andrea Bienert, bpa © Photo: Andrea Bienert, bpa

"Diversity, Partnership, Respect"


Education, science, culture - for six decades now UNESCO has been dedicating its efforts to three themes that are as important to each and every individual as to humankind as a whole. I congratulate UNESCO and its member states on what has been achieved to date, I wish the newly elected President of the General Conference a sure hand for the task ahead and I thank Director-General Matsuura for his successful work over these past years.


It was with great pleasure that I accepted this invitation to speak to you about human dignity and cultural diversity.

Human dignity and cultural diversity - today these are on everyone's lips. But let us cast our minds back just a couple of generations. World War II and the Holocaust perpetrated by the National Socialists were the work of aggressors who systematically trampled human dignity under foot and sought to root out cultural diversity in all territories under their rule. The United Nations and UNESCO, too, were founded to ensure that such horrors should never happen again. Today, as we know, humanity has not been liberated from the scourge of war and human dignity remains under serious threat - from poverty and underdevelopment, from terrorism and oppression.


Yet while the threats still exist and vigilance is still needed, conditions nowadays for protect­ing human dignity and safeguarding cultural diversity have substantially improved. We have the United Nations, which strives persistently to promote international security and order. We have worldwide organizations such as UNESCO, which seek to enhance respect for human dignity and strengthen the foundations that allow different cultures to live in harmony together. And we have a world public that cares both about the plight of individuals and the plight of whole cultures where violence, injustice, intolerance and poverty are the order of the day.


Respect for human dignity is today a fundamental principle of the international order, a paramount goal of the international community. Human dignity is the core concept underlying the United Nations Charter and UNESCO's Constitution as well as countless universal and regional human rights covenants and national constitutions. "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." This statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is no philanthropic aspiration, it has the force of law. All political action must be judged by whether it helps people to lead their lives in dignity. That applies across the board, from the policies of the industrialized nations to the reform efforts of the developing coun­tries, from world trade policy to international efforts to protect the environment and to bioethics.

It is good that UNESCO is attempting in the Declaration on Bioethics to formulate clear norms that define what is and what is not permissible as regards research on human beings. However, I ask for your understanding that on these issues we in Germany still feel the need for an in-depth public debate, particularly with regard to research on people who themselves lack the capacity to make decisions.


Every human being is individual, unique, responsible for their own lives. Nevertheless, John Donne was right - "no man is an island". We respect human dignity because we respect peo­ple's freedom to decide for themselves what they want to make of their lives. In so doing they should be neither selfish nor high-handed, but bear in mind the community of which they and others are part. It is this sense of responsibility towards one's fellow men and women that cre­ates what we think of as culture.

Every truly vibrant culture is nurtured by a host of people and nurtures them in return. Culture gives people a sense of their roots, of identity, of knowing where they come from and where they belong. Culture gives people confidence in themselves, an inner strength and composure. Cultures teaches us respect - respect for the generations whose legacy has been passed down to us and respect for other cultures and their heritage. The lifeblood of culture is exchange, the discovery of ever new paths leading from the familiar to the unknown, from our home turf to new horizons. It is when we feel fully at ease with our own culture that we are ready to open out to and learn from other cultures.

The cultures of the world bear living witness to what people have laboured together to create, to what they deem right and wrong, good and bad, ugly and beautiful. The cultures of the world are just as special and unique as every individual, and their interactions can have new and positive outcomes, provided they are all as respectful and responsible in their dealings with one another as are individuals of good will the world over.


There are abundant examples of such fruitful interaction, thanks not least to the work of UNESCO. You, ladies and gentlemen, are committed to preserving cultural treasures throughout the world. The World Cultural Heritage, a term UNESCO itself coined, is a shared legacy created by a host of different nations and which enriches the lives of us all. People across the world were shocked and saddened when in Bosnia and Herzegovina the Mostar bridge was destroyed and when in Afghanistan the Taliban blew up the great statues of Buddha. In both cases people felt this as a real loss to themselves. Vice-versa the same applies: people feel justly proud when UNESCO places a site in their own country on the World Heritage list and take even more care to look after it.


We are right to be pleased with what has been accomplished, but it is crucial now to direct our energies notably to those challenges that still have to be met. Let me draw attention to the challenge I believe is the most important one at the present time. How can we work together internationally to ensure that protection of human dignity is improved worldwide in real and lasting ways, that more people than at present, everyone indeed can lead their lives in dignity?

My answer - and this is nothing very new - is:

We need to combat poverty

We need to safeguard diversity

And we need to build partnership.

That is the key to sound development worldwide.

So let us work with much greater purpose to realize the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, let us cherish the diversity of cultures and do all we can to ensure their interactions are marked by a spirit of openness, respect and partnership.


Where do we stand on the Millennium Development Goals? Clearly the results so far are hardly encouraging. If progress continues at the rate seen over the past five years, there is no way we can meet our target. Only if we stiffen our resolve and step up our efforts will we achieve by 2015 a real and tangible reduction in poverty, disease, hunger, underdevelopment and illiter­acy. From my own experience at the IMF I know the most important goal is to reduce poverty.

A great deal depends on the developing countries themselves. To nurture economic develop­ment and social progress they need to grow their own roots. These I see as confidence in their own culture, institutional reform, good governance, too, of course and respect for human rights, but also, repeat, confidence in their own culture.

For their part the industrialized countries need to understand that it is in their own interest to help the developing world and ensure that it gets a fair deal. For if the poor and needy in these countries see no lasting prospect of a better life, they will leave for greener pastures. But if the industrialized countries are ready to help and also to ensure a much more open trade regime, everyone will benefit.


Cultural diversity is just as important, I believe, for the world's general weal. The reasons have to do both with the individual and with the meaning of culture as such.

A strong culture that is sure of what it stands for can provide the individual with an inner compass and sense of direction. Especially in this age of globalization everyone needs such an inner compass. To my mind it is rather like football - I hope you will excuse such analogies a year before Germany hosts the World Cup. On the pitch you need a non-kicking and a kicking leg. The non-kicking leg is what you are familiar with, your home environment, your mother tongue, the customs and traditions you grew up with, that you know and value. The kicking leg is your ability to make the most of opportunities, explore new worlds, make contact with people from other backgrounds, work together with partners, exchange ideas, goods, services. Indeed, it is this very diversity of cultures that enables people both to know where they stand and to reach out to others.

People are keenly aware of this and that is why they are increasingly mindful of their cultural identity, the legacy that has shaped them, distinguishes them from others, made them what they are. They need and want to know what their roots are. That does not mean they are run­ning away from or putting up barriers against anything; to know their roots gives people inner strength, gives them a clearer sense of who they are and helps them hold their own when the winds of change are blowing. Cultural diversity is thus important to the individual, for it is this that enables him to find his place in the world, engage with the world and have the inner composure and strength to set out and explore it.

Looked at the other way round, the same applies. Cultural diversity is important and must be preserved because every involuntary erosion of culture destroys countless people's roots and diminishes their prospects of living a life in dignity. Involuntary erosion threatens whenever the pace of cultural change is greater than people can take in their stride.

Of course cultures constantly undergo change - they always have and in so doing have pre­served their true essence. Germans eat sushi and döner without forgetting Goethe's "Faust"; young Chinese read "Harry Potter" while discovering Confucius anew; the African players who bring a new flair to European football are cheered with the same enthusiasm as in their home countries.

If, however, cultures experience excessive change, people may lose their bearings, their inner compass, and the community of which they are part may disintegrate. For far too many people that means acute hardship and suffering. If only to prevent such outcomes, the existing diver­sity of cultures is an important asset and one that ought to be preserved.

Here the Convention on cultural diversity drawn up by UNESCO is making a valuable contri­bution. It is impressive testimony, moreover, to the effectiveness of your Organization. Nevertheless, even conventions such as this cannot, as we all know, guarantee or offer a substitute for a vibrant culture. The vitality of any culture depends, after all, on the way successive gen­erations leave their own imprint on its values, traditions and modes of expression.

That is one reason why I, as a German and as a European, am committed wholeheartedly to the values that have made Europe what it is: from the Jewish-Christian command to love thy neighbour to the concept of human rights, from the ideas of the Enlightenment, the notion of tolerance to a belief in liberty and the rule of law, from the right of every individual to lead a life of his own choosing to the duties of the good citizen. All these are values that are worth pre­serving - and by that I mean giving them practical expression in our daily lives.


However, we want to do more than merely preserve what has already been accomplished in terms of protecting human dignity, enabling people to lead a life in dignity. Through global cooperation we want to enhance the welfare of nations in real and lasting ways, so that hope­fully people everywhere will be able to lead their lives in dignity.

That will be possible only if the cultures of the world are open and respectful towards one another, if they treat one another as partners. If any cultural community feels disregarded, oppressed, unfairly treated, subjected to cultural domination, it will offer resistance. It will retreat into isolation and become increasingly rigid; it will restrict the freedoms of its mem­bers and in its dealings with others be quick to take offence. The fear and anguish that grip people when they see their world out of kilter can easily turn into aggression.

That is why it is so crucial to strengthen our cultures' sense of inner confidence and also their respect for other cultures. Whatever their differences, there is one precept that our cultures should all take to heart: let us rejoice in our diversity, let us cherish what we feel is special to us yet also recognize others as free and equal to ourselves, however different - and let us explore where we have common ground!

Those who accept one another as free and equal do not lecture or disparage one another as godless or uncivilized. They stand by their own view of the world and they defend what they believe is important, yet they also know that others may choose to live differently. All cul­tures that respect this will also share certain core beliefs, just as the major world religions share a number of fundamental principles, of which the first and foremost is the injunction to respect and protect human dignity.

A partnership between cultures that possess this inner confidence is proof against cultural imperialism and, by the same token, proof against all attempts to keep outside influences at bay and deny people freedom of choice in cultural matters.

A partnership between cultures that possess this inner confidence should be seen as a learning community in which everyone learns more also about themselves, for dialogue with our part­ners enables everyone to reflect on and define their own positions more clearly.

A partnership between cultures that possess this inner confidence is also the best possible basis for global economic cooperation, for it links this cooperation to life in all its dimensions and to the aspiration of all mankind to lead a life in dignity. It is in such an environment that globalization can best help people everywhere to lead the life they want to lead: a life free from poverty and respected by others, a life in a culturally diverse world. And I believe we have an obligation and a duty to help in this endeavour.