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UN75: Multilateralism is the essence of intercultural dialogue

The Silk Road concert in 2017, organised by the UN Alliance of Civilizations, celebrated the exchange of culture and knowledge (Photo: ONUART Foundation)

In the late 19th century, Antonín Dvořák, Czech composer and celebrated musician from my own region said admiratively of locomotives: “It comprises so many parts, so many different components… everything has its purpose and role and the result is astounding!”

Dvořák's expression would make a generous tribute to our diplomatic system: so many parts, each with its own role.

We stand at a critical moment. More than ever, the great challenges we face – like Covid-19, the climate crisis, unsustainable resource use, and inequalities – cannot be faced by one country alone.

The 75th anniversary of the United Nations is the time to reflect on how we can best work together to address them. Because the challenges we face are complex, our collective response must be multifaceted. For this reason, political cooperation, scientific and technical work must be fostered alongside cultural exchange.

Indeed, this recognition is imprinted in the very DNA of our modern multilateral system. Signed in 1945 among the still smouldering ashes of the Second World War, Article I of the UN Charter – whose entry into force 75 years ago we celebrate in 2020 – states the objective “to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character”.

In fact, the “intellectual and moral solidarity” of humankind was deemed so essential to build lasting peace that in the very same year, the signature of the UNESCO Constitution established a dedicated organisation within the fledgling United Nations system, its purpose being "to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture”.

And in turn, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948, affirmed that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community” and “to enjoy the arts”.

Over the decades, much has changed, but the intergovernmental apparatus set up back then has weathered the storms, thanks also to the mutually reinforcing foundations of political cooperation and intercultural understanding.

Indeed, three-quarters of a century of the United Nations project has taught us a great deal about common endeavour. Today, at a time of rising nationalism and tensions, we may look to lessons from history.

The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was established in 1947 to promote pan-European economic integration. After the horrors of the Second World War, this was deemed “essential to the maintenance of peace”.  This mandate is as relevant today as ever.

Since then, we have provided a platform for countries to come together to address common challenges. Our experience shows that difference does not exclude dialogue. For instance, at the height of the Cold War, countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain negotiated and adopted a unique regional treaty to tackle air pollution. Forty years on, our Air Convention continues to save lives across the region, avoiding some 600,000 premature deaths each year in Europe alone.

With this, I wish to stress that multilateralism itself is the essence of intercultural dialogue. In fact, the diversity of cultural identity is a vital resource for our intergovernmental work. It permeates and enriches even the most technical discussions. It also profoundly shapes the physical environment in which we operate.

The crux of our work at UNECE is to forge common standards, legal and regulatory tools, that, for instance, make vehicles safer, and make cross-border trade cheaper and more efficient. In recent years, we have had the privilege to work with artists, such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, and creators to promote sustainability in the fashion industry. We are now working on developing traceability tools for the sector.

For over 70 years, these processes have been inseparable from our setting: the historic Palais des Nations in Geneva – a city shaped by the greatest concentration of multilateral engagement anywhere on earth.

Over the decades, cultural diplomacy has become a fundamental feature of this unique global hub for human rights, humanitarian affairs, environmental protection and development. It is increasingly used by member states not only as a vehicle for soft power, but also to promote United Nations values of dialogue, democracy, solidarity, human rights, and freedom of expression.

Over 40 exhibitions are organized each year, along with dozens of concerts, performances, film screenings and other cultural events, showcasing traditions and contemporary creativity from all around the world. Paintings, sculptures and traditional crafts offered by governments to the international community are as much a feature of this unique setting as the conference rooms and translation booths.

In 2005 the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations initiative was introduced with the mission of addressing persistent cross-cultural tensions and divides. In 1998 the UN established the Messenger of Peace programme, mobilising prominent artists from around the world.

In this context, I had the honour of opening a Silk Road concert a few years ago, organised by the UN Alliance of Civilizations. That concert beautifully brought to life the tapestry of cultures woven over centuries across the Eurasian continent. And just last month, I joined the ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to inaugurate an exhibition of exquisite traditional textile craftsmanship, celebrating – quite literally — the intertwined fibres of our region’s rich cultural heritage.

Fostering exchange, understanding and connectivity between nations offers great potential to drive progress across the sustainable development goals – our global roadmap to build the future we want for 2030. In our ever more connected world, we need creativity, fresh ideas and broad engagement in multilateral dialogue. At UNECE we are acting on this conviction: our first Forum of Mayors held in October was an important step in this direction, where leading architect Lord Foster shared an inspiring vision for green and resilient cities after the Covid-19 crisis.

An inclusive approach to regional and global cooperation is the vital energy we require – to inform our collective efforts now, and to tackle the great challenges ahead. This has been at the heart of the UN75 dialogue, a unique global conversation to shape our shared future.

Now we must put this message into action. To all governments across Europe, North America, the Caucasus and Central Asia, to all stakeholders, and to all citizens of our region: let us build on the foundations of mutual understanding, cooperation and intercultural exchange to carry our United Nations forward. We need your engagement more than ever.

Olga Algayerova is the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Before her appointment in 2017, she served as permanent representative of Slovakia to the International Organizations in Vienna, Austria, for five years. She also held previous roles as president of the Slovak Millennium Development Goals and state secretary at the Slovakian ministry of foreign affairs.

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