Warning of 'empathy gap,' Ban urges faith leaders to speak up against injustice and brutality

22 April 2015

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today urged faith leaders gathered in the General Assembly to stand up for the collective good and amplify their voices in support of moderation and mutual understanding, warning that he fears an “empathy gap” is causing people to turn their eyes from injustice and numbing them to atrocities.

“At a time when we are seeing so much division and hatred, I wanted to bring people together under the banner of the United Nations to explore how best to respond,” the Secretary-General said on the second day of a gathering at Headquarters in New York of leaders representing diverse faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, as well as ministers, academics, and spiritual teachers.

Mr. Ban said that he was deeply concerned as today communities rushed to point out an affront against themselves, but ignored or dismissed the legitimate grievances of others. “I am worried that a certain numbness and helplessness may be setting in as people witness atrocity after atrocity,” he said.

“Religion does not cause violence, people do,” the Secretary-General continued. “Today we turn to what you as men and women can and must do in this vital endeavour,” he told the High-Level Assembly meeting on Promoting Tolerance and Reconciliation, Fostering Peaceful, Inclusive Societies and Countering Violent Extremism, which opened yesterday and concludes today.

“The dignity and worth of the human person, the equal rights of men and women, tolerance and living together in harmony…these principles are our bedrock and they are what this organization defends,” he emphasized.

But those values are held in contempt by violent extremists and “bankrupt ideologies.” Such violent extremism transcends borders. Brutal acts are vividly committed by D'aesh, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and other sectarian groups.

Migrants are among the most vulnerable targets, Mr. Ban said, adding that there is a “direct line” between prejudice and extremism, racism and genocide. After the Holocaust, and with the establishment of the UN, “the world vowed never again…but we have seen injustices over and over again.”

The human contradiction is that “we are capable of utmost brutality but also compassion, tolerance and reconciliation,” the Secretary-General pointed out, adding that “today, I ask for your wisdom and leadership.”

“We need you to promote dialogue as an antidote to intolerance. Your voices will be critical in countering hate speech and finding common ground,” Mr. Ban told the meeting. “Faith leaders are on the frontlines of your community and many of you see the forces of radicalization. Use your influence to stand up for moderation and mutual understanding.”

Equally important is addressing the root causes of extremism. Abuses and indignities make individuals ripe for recruitment for sectarian and violent groups, the UN chief said, calling on leaders to ensure another way, a better way, which includes equality, and promoting opportunity and upholding human rights.

He also announced that later this year, he would present a UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. Meanwhile, faith leaders must raise their voices to counter the narrative of extremists.

“Missiles may kill terrorists, but I am convinced that good governance is what kills terrorism,” Mr. Ban said, urging the gathering to speak out against human rights breaches and social injustice wherever they were encountered. “I ask you, too, to do more to amplify the voice of the moderate majority so we may drown out those who preach violence and hatred.”

The international community must protect the rights of people to think, speak and worship freely. Faith leaders gathered today have a vast audience, great influence and an immense responsibility.

“Together, we can rise to the call of the UN Charter to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, reaffirm human rights, and promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” Mr. Ban concluded.

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Mr. Ban said that religious leaders can play a central role in “healing sectarian divides and countering the forces of radicalization.”

“That is why I wanted people from many faiths to come together at the United Nations to express our shared abhorrence at such violence,” the UN chief said, pledging to form an advisory panel of faith leaders to guide the global communit.

“When governments respect human rights and provide opportunities for people to voice their grievances…the attraction to violent extremism will wither and peace and prosperity will grow,” Mr. Ban added.

In the afternoon, President of General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, closed the session thanking participants and religious leaders for providing a great deal of insight during the two-day talks.

“There was widespread agreement that no one should be left on the margins; including young people, women, religious minorities or others facing discrimination based on race, ethnic origin or religious belief,” he noted.

“Some participants called for a global preventive action plan to address the recruitment or luring of young people into terrorist organizations. It was noted that youth are vital in creating a more tolerant future generation, with educators and parents, especially mothers, having a particularly important role to play in their upbringing,” Mr. Kutesa emphasized.

The General Assembly President also commended participants for recognizing the importance of media both as a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations as well as a positive means for educating citizens in a thoughtful fashion. He further called on individuals to “go beyond” tolerance towards the principles of mutual respect.

“Religious leaders have an important role to play, and we should support them in spreading their messages of peace, harmony and hope,” Mr. Kutesa stressed, urging steps to be taken to fully engage religious leaders, including greater collaboration with the UN, with a focus on maximizing respective strengths.


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