• Sunday, July 14, 2024
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Pluralism: a key challenge of the 21st century


Globalisation 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 inevitably brings. Without the institutions and policies to manage diversity, whole communities can feel marginalised 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 civilisations. I strongly disagree. I see the world coming together in one global civilisation, 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 and 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 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 we must not shy away from the fact that plural societies, by their very 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 compatible. And it is important to recognise 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.

Diversity is about difference, and there is diversity among countries, as well as between them. The mix of policies and institutions required, for example, to manage relations between indigenous communities and a majority of long-established incomers is not the same as that required to integrate and protect “new” minorities who have only recently arrived. Many countries have to manage both situations at once. Canada is one, and it has done so more successfully than most – although I am sure few Canadians would claim that there are no problems left to solve. Canada’s prosperity, as well as its political system and strong institutions – including an independent judiciary – make it relatively well placed to deal with these challenges.

But in countries without such advantages, tensions all too often spill over into violence and conflict, leading, in the worst cases, to ethnic cleansing and genocide, such as we saw in Rwanda, and in Bosnia Herzegovina.

Again, the origins of these stresses are different in each country. Most often, majorities hold a minority group responsible for their problems, or see it as a threat, and turn on it in fury. But there are also cases such as we saw in South Africa, where a minority clings to power and privilege, partly because it fears what will happen to it if power passes to the majority. Each of these cases involves different realities and conditions. Each requires a different approach. But most have this in common: though these conflicts have security implications, they are, in essence, political problems requiring political solutions.

While numerous political factors come into play, resolution of these conflicts often requires action to tackle long-standing injustice and discrimination. This was certainly the case in Kenya, a country in which I have been closely involved, after sectarian violence exploded after the contested presidential election in 2007. Kenya had successfully projected a vision of peace and stability, so the violence, in which over 1,000 people lost their lives and 650,000 people were displaced, shocked the world.

But this image was not rooted in reality. The truth is that widespread corruption and crony-capitalism had fuelled a deep-seated sense of anger and grievance across the country. Kenya’s political elite had sadly adopted the ‘divide and rule’ form of its former colonial rulers with little attempt to build a cohesive national identity. Wealth and influence were passed between interchanging ethnic cliques. The rule of law had become less important than tribal bloodlines. But while a few at the top amassed great wealth – which they spread to their close kin – the vast majority of the country’s citizens lived in abject poverty. This fuelled despair and resentment which exploded in the aftermath of the election, exposing the deep rifts within Kenyan society.

The violence was terrible. But I, and many others, were aware that the far worse shadow of Rwanda and Bosnia hung over Kenya. This threat, thankfully, led to a concerted international response from within Africa and outside which persuaded Kenya’s warring leaders to agree to mediation. By the time the team of Eminent African Personalities, comprised of Benjamin Mkapa, Graca Maçhel and myself, had arrived, we had the undivided backing of the African Union, the UN, the US, and the European Union for our work. The rapid intervention of the international community to this crisis did help Kenya pull itself back from the brink of the abyss. This is in contrast to the conflict in Syria – another country where I have been involved – whose trauma has been worse in almost every respect.

The differing examples of Kenya and Syria underline the indispensible role that the international community can and must play in helping defuse trouble. In a world more inter-connected than ever, it would be reckless to believe that we can be indifferent to any country’s traumas or let narrow national interests persuade us to stand back.


Extract from an address at the Global Centre for Pluralism, May 2013.


Annan was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006.