The growing scourge of intolerance demands a global response based on mutual understanding and respect, United Nations officials said today in commemoration of the International Day of Tolerance.
"In a world of intense economic competition, shifting populations and shrinking distances, the pressures of living together with people of different cultures and different beliefs from one's own are very real," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his message commemorating the Day.
The resultant backlash is evident in the rise of xenophobia and extremism across the globe and demands our strongest response, Mr. Annan stated, asserting that the need for tolerance is greater today than at any time in the UN's past.
He stressed the importance of individual initiative in building a culture of tolerance in addition to increased legal protection and education, and noted that tolerance cannot simply mean "passive acceptance of other peoples' perceived peculiarities."
Instead it must involve "an active effort by all of us to learn more about each other, to understand the wellsprings of each other's differences, to discover what is best in each other's beliefs and traditions. Only through such a process of discovery can we come to realize that what binds us as human beings is far stronger than what divides us men," he said.
In a message to mark the day, the Director-General of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO), Koïchiro Matsuura, said that the protection and promotion of cultural diversity and education in the universal values of human rights, human dignity and respect for and acceptance of others have become the priority concerns, especially in societies that have experienced major crises, or armed conflict.
"To further the values of tolerance, UNESCO is implementing a global integrated strategy to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," he noted.
An example of the real problems generated by intolerance are the increasing challenges faced by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as it works to protect refugees, returnees and other displaced persons.
"The rise of intolerance in today's world and the inability of different people to live together threaten peace, the safety of refugees and the social cohesion of societies," High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said at a press conference in New York earlier this month.
The International Day for Tolerance is observed on 16 November as an occasion both for tolerance education and for reflection and debate on intolerance. It was set up in 1996 at the initiative of UNESCO.