Pluralism: A Key Opportunity for the 21st Century

October 31st, 2013

Kofi Annan is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the former United Nations Secretary-General. In this excerpt from his 2013 Pluralism Lecture at the Global Centre for Pluralism (Ottawa, Canada), he talks about importance of managing “the conflicting pressures that pluralism invariably brings.”

Your Highness The Aga Khan, Excellencies, fellow members of the Board, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be with you today. The Global Centre for Pluralism has an extremely important mandate, and I feel privileged to participate in its work.

Globalization has brought us closer together. In the 21st century, we live for the first time in one global community. But it is a community composed of many strands which must be carefully woven together into a whole. If diversity is seen as a source of strength, societies can become healthier, more stable, and prosperous. But there is another side of the coin if we fail to manage the conflicting pressures that pluralism invariably brings. Without the institutions and policies to manage diversity, whole communities can be marginalized and oppressed, creating conditions for conflict and violence.

This is why pluralism is a key challenge for the 21st century. Some look at recent developments and claim that our world is becoming fragmented into different civilizations. I strongly disagree. I see the world coming together in one global civilization, to which each of us brings our own traditions, cultures, and beliefs. My long experience has taught me that, whatever our background, what unites us is far greater than what divides us.

My experience has also taught me that strong, healthy, cohesive societies are built on three pillars – peace and security; development; and the rule of law and respect for human rights. Unfortunately stability and economic growth have, for far too long, been the principal responses to national and global problems. We must not fall into this trap. For there can be no long-term security without development and no long-term development without security. And no society can long remain prosperous or secure without respect for the rule of law and human rights. For a society to manage pluralism successfully, it must embrace and give equal weight to each of these three pillars.

But ladies and gentlemen, we must not shy away from the fact that plural societies, by their nature, are challenging to govern. They bring with them competing claims or entitlements – each of which can be justified and defended, but which are not always compatible. And it is important to recognize that no society – however democratic or respectful of the rule of law – resolves these challenges perfectly. Europe, for example, has well-established legal systems and arrangements to protect minorities and reach acceptable compromises. Yet even within Europe, pluralism is sometimes seen as a threat. Levels of social prejudice have been rising against religious and cultural minorities and new immigrants.

We have also seen a fall in trust and confidence in political institutions which has led to increased support for more extreme political groupings. These trends underline how important it is for countries to entrench democratic principles and norms, adopt inclusive policies to build and sustain trust, increase inclusion and reduce insecurity. And just as no country is born a democracy, no one is born a good citizen. Mutual respect and tolerance have to be fostered and taught. We have to promote dialogue to combat fear, intolerance, and extremism.

We have to learn from each other, making our different traditions and cultures a source of harmony and strength, not discord and weakness.

Read the complete speech.

Printed with permission from the Global Centre for Pluralism.

Kofi A. Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, serving two terms from January 1, 1997 to December 31, 2006 and was the first to emerge from the ranks of United Nations staff. In 2001 Kofi Annan and the United Nations were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace with the citation praising his leadership for “bringing new life to the organisation.” In addition to his work with the Kofi Annan Foundation, Mr. Annan serves as the Chairman of the Africa Progress Panel (APP) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). He is also a Board member, Patron or Honorary member of a number of organisations, including the UN Foundation and The Elders. Mr. Annan currently serves as the Chancellor of the University of Ghana, a Global Fellow at Columbia University in the United States, and Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

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