High-Level Conference “Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Europe”

Yerevan, 21-22 October 2013

Speech by Michael O’BRIEN, Vice-President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Minister,

Secretary General,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to address this conference on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, and I wish to thank the organisers, the Armenian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, for this timely initiative.

It is timely indeed, because we are witnessing a rise of racism, xenophobia and intolerance in Europe today, fuelled to a great extent by the consequences of the economic crisis and people’s disillusionment with mainstream politics and politicians unable to resolve the problems. In times of hardship, a search for scapegoats is a way to attribute the blame, and more often than not such scapegoats are people who are different than the majority.

We are witnessing populism and extremism hijacking the political agenda; however, extremism in political discourse is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a reflection of the undercurrent which is growing popular frustration finding its escape in intolerance towards all types of minorities – ethnic and religious; Jewish, Muslim or Christian; Roma and gay, foreigners in general. Paradoxically, because European diversity today is so broad, those who discriminate as a majority on one country can find themselves discriminated as a minority in another. One can only ask oneself: where does it stop?

Or, to look at it from another angle: where does it start? It is at the level of our communities where cultural groups, majority and minority, interact most directly, and it is at this level where tensions and strife may escalate into an open conflict. For us in the Congress, the fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance must also begin in our towns, cities and regions. European directives and national laws are important, but they will remain a dead letter unless they are implemented at the level where their impact is most tangible: in our grassroots communities. And this, in turn, means changing the way the local population sees minorities, the way we value others. It means changing negative attitudes and false perceptions, promoting understanding of the advantages of cultural diversity, and fostering intercultural dialogue between different population groups.

This is the work for which local and regional authorities bear primary responsibility. In the Congress, we regard promotion of interculturalism and implementation of local and regional intercultural policies as an effective tool for combating xenophobic and intolerant attitudes. It has been the subject of a great number of Congress resolutions and recommendations over the past years. In fact, I could say that action against xenophobia and intolerance has been mainstreamed into Congress activities – whether it is our action on the integration of migrants, inclusion of Roma, intercultural dialogue, or citizen participation.

I could mention such Congress initiatives as the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, launched in March this year, which served as a basis for a new joint programme with the European Commission, ROMACT;

or the European Local Democracy Week, launched in 2007, which has become a truly pan-European event marked every year in mid-October by municipalities across Europe, and which brings together local authorities and residents regardless of their cultural backgrounds, to engage them in community building.

I could also mention a growing number of municipal and regional networks operating across borders and therefore across cultural differences, which the Congress supports and with which we cooperate to make sure our message and proposals reach authorities on the ground: for example, the European Coalition of Cities against Racism, Intercultural Cities, Eurocities, Cities for Human Rights, or the former Cities for Local Integration Policy network.

This work is on-going. We are convinced that fighting racism, xenophobia and intolerance means creating a truly intercultural environment in our towns, cities and regions, based on tolerance and respect of diversity, respect of others. This is why the Congress has been calling on local and regional authorities to develop and pursue intercultural policies aimed at engaging local residents in action for the benefit of the entire community, regardless of their cultural background. Local authorities can make a great difference by working to change the perceptions of local residents through intercultural dialogue, intercultural education and intercultural communication – and quite simply, through intercultural interaction in our local communities.

Indeed, our experience shows that building intercultural relations and fostering dialogue within our communities is often impeded by the reluctance and negative attitudes of the local population. These attitudes are fuelled by prejudice and wrong perceptions that are frequently based on rumours, stereotypes and false information. A lack of understanding by local citizens of advantages that can be drawn from cultural and religious diversity represents a major obstacle to our living together in the 21st century Europe.

This is why our most recent action is aimed at changing perceptions of diversity through intercultural education and effective communication at the grassroots. The Congress organised a conference on this subject in June this year in Ankara, and is currently preparing a report to identify the existing problems and to recommend measures for improving understanding of diversity advantages. During the Congress’ session next week, we are also organising a current affairs debate on fighting extremism at local and regional level.

The Congress has been working to implement its resolution and recommendation on social approach to the fight against racism at local and regional level, adopted in 2008. We have been urging local and regional authorities to continue taking active steps in combating all forms of racism, in particular by developing local and regional strategies and action plans to enforce measures against discrimination in the provision of services, employment, public procurement, business development, education, subsidies and permits, and support for civil society.

At the same time, we are also calling on national governments to support local and regional action, and to give authorities at the grassroots the necessary competences and financial resources to take such measures for countering racism, discrimination and the ensuing inequalities.

Because this is also a common, concerted effort of all sectors of society and all levels of government. It is only by working together that we can uphold our democratic values in combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance on this continent.

I would like to conclude by stressing that changing our perceptions of others takes education and learning from experience, from getting to know each other. Today’s diversity in Europe offers an excellent opportunity for such learning, while our cities and regions provide a place for interaction and practical dialogue between cultural groups. We must seize these opportunities for a good cause.

I would like to thank once again the organisers for the initiative to hold this conference, and to wish all of us productive discussions.

Thank you.



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