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Welcoming Address by the Prime Minister of Sweden, Göran Persson
Welcoming Address by the Prime Minister of Sweden
Ladies and Gentlemen,
With the film “Right wing extremism in Sweden” we have brought you straight into one of the darkest corners of Swedish reality.
We could have chosen another picture.
We could have shown you some of the many examples of activities and work being done up and down the country that strengthens and develops democracy.
But we are gathered here today for a specific purpose: to take action to combat intolerance. And we need to take a close look at its most challenging and extreme forms.
This sad reality exists. Not only in Sweden, but in many of the countries that you represent.
Populistic parties with xenophobic views are gaining ground in Europe. A large number of violent crimes with racist overtones have been committed in recent years. The denial of the Holocaust is a central part of Nazi and racist propaganda that attracts considerable public attention as well as a growing number of disparate political groups. Recently we have also faced a wave of antisemitism resulting in attacks on for example synagogues and Jewish burial grounds.
Just a few generations on from the liberation of Auschwitz we see an alarming rise in right wing extremism throughout Europe. Today these groups work and meet on an international arena. Propaganda and methods are spread rapidly across national borders. National efforts alone are no longer sufficient to counteract them.
Few of us were prepared for such a development. Few of us can judge the full scope of it. All of us have to heed the warning.
At the Stockholm Forum on the Holocaust last January, Elie Wiesel put the disturbing question:
“Will our past become our children’s future?”
We face a radicalisation of groups whose explicit ambition is to answer yes!
There is no room for hesitation.
We have to show our full determination.
It is time for action and cooperation.
* * *
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me read a poem called Birdsong:
“The poor thing stands there vainly,
Vainly he strains his voice.
Perhaps he’ll die. Then can you say
How beautiful is the world today?”
This is a poem written by a nameless child. The author was one of 15.000 children deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz.
Do we have to remember this child?
Yes, we do.
To forget would be to betray, not only this child, but all the children, women and men who were robbed of their human dignity, tortured and murdered during the Holocaust.
To forget would be to betray all the children, women and men who were persecuted, slaughtered and killed in mass murder and other atrocities on every continent during the last century.
To forget would be to betray our selves, and every single child that comes new into this world today.
But, my friends, remembrance places upon us a demand:
To try – hard as it is – to understand.
To learn, but not only the facts and figures.
To seek our fellow beings behind them.
The ones we lost had hopes and dreams and aspirations just like yours and mine. They bore within them whatever we love in our fellow beings. Their uniqueness. The qualities that make us different from one another – and yet the same. Just like all those who are persecuted today.
The grim dilemmas posed by the Holocaust do not provide any ready-made solutions that tell us how to handle today’s problems with xenophobia and extremism. More often than not they force us to reflect on unthinkable choices between equally unthinkable alternatives – choices that were so often forced on the victims of the Holocaust. It raises more questions than it gives answers.
The point is the quest in itself. Because it sharpens our awareness of the moral and humanistic values that direct our actions. Because it brings us closer to ourselves, and hence closer to our fellow human beings. Because it can help us detect the mechanisms behind massmurder and genocide and to prevent further atrocities.
The Holocaust happened to a specific group, for specific reasons, at a specific point in time and under a specific set of circumstances. It is unique. It happened once. But - or should I say, therefore – it can happen again. Not necessarily to the Jews, but to any group. Not necessarily by the Germans, but by any group. At any point in time. That is the universal aspect of the Holocaust.
All genocides occur because people will them, plan them and carries them trough. And they occur because people make choices that allow them to occur, because people remain silent and indifferent.
All racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, all group prejudices are based on the same tenet – the idea that there are inferior and superior human beings.
All forms of intolerance are the denial of the equal dignity of all human beings. When one group takes upon itself the right to determine the value of other people, anyone at all, any group at all may become a target. At any time.
* * *
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Right wing extremism is dangerous, but we should not focus only on that. It exists alongside other, more subtle but still acutely harmful expressions of intolerance.
What we are witnessing today is the increased visibility of group prejudice, xenophobia and everyday racism.
One explanation is the failure of democratic forces to meet people’s needs.
As the late Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden, once said:
“Even the most splendid forms of democracy become mere empty shells if they lack the capacity for resolute action to solve the problems that people regard as important to their everyday lives.”
The failure of governments to break mass unemployment, their failure to spread prosperity and growth to all, their failure to reduce poverty and social gaps, and their failure to stop corruption and organised crime make people turn their back on democracy.
Living in poverty, feeling powerless and excluded makes people look for scapegoats. It is only a small step from growing despair, from alienation and lack of hope for the future - to hostile egoism, hatred and belief in shallow, simplistic solutions.
Democratic forces must be prepared to address this despair. If we don’t, other forces will.
We must fight the superficial, simplistic ideas with the lessons of those who know.
We must fight the evil ideology of a self-appointed elite wherever it rears its ugly head.
But we must also offer visions for the future.
We must express visions and carry out policies aimed at creating a society that is inclusive, that does not leave people behind, that puts the problems of discrimination and prejudice high on the political agenda.
No one has the right to reduce a person to a mere group identity.
No one has the right to deprive people of their unique human dignity.
It is a question of conscience and humanity.
* * *
Today we are gathered here in Stockholm to discuss challenges and possibilities for combating intolerance.
Four interrelated subjects are central.
Education is our first theme. How can teaching and understanding of the past serve as a warning and help us prevent intolerance in the future? How can we through education counteract stereotypes and hostility against minorities?
Our second theme focuses on the possibilities and limitations of legislation. How do we strike a balance between the need to counteract antidemocratic ideologies and the need to protect fundamental democratic principles? Should legislation be used to combat intolerance on the Internet, Holocaust denial and other forms of propaganda or are there better strategies?
Third, what role does the local community play in combating intolerance, what problems are local and what strategies and actions can we use to prevent xenophobia and racism in local communities?
Fourth, how do the media impact on intolerance, how is racism and right-wing extremism presented? How can the media help foster a humanistic and democratic attitude among younger generations?
Let me also say this at the starting point of the conference:
The persecution of the Roma people has cast them as the most marginalized members of the European family.
In recent years, the plight of the Roma has been well documented. And no doubt, too little progress has been made in addressing the problems of the Roma people.
Even when problems of escalating poverty, frustration and violence cause many Roma to flee their own countries, few nations have opened their doors to these refugees.
We must find a common strategy to address these injustices.
* * *
Human beings are amazing creatures.
Gifted with the power to develop, adjust and learn.
Gifted with the power to build, plan and change.
But also “gifted” with a frightening capacity for destruction.
Today we know that the greatest danger is not the evil among those who are evil, but in the silence of those who are good.
History has forced us to see what happens when democratic and humanistic ideals crumble and fall away.
History has taught us how far the evil of a few can go when sustained by the silence of many.
History has shown us how dangerous it is when discrimination and persecution are met with indifference.
Ultimately it all comes down to you and me.
It all comes down to the choices we make - what we choose to see or hear, to accept in silence or to actively resist.
As parents, as friends, as the role models we all are for others - we must carry forth the message:
There is always a choice. Not to choose is also a choice.
Think, and take a stand!
* * *
Combating intolerance is no easy task.
Standing here, looking out over all of you, I feel hope.
450 representatives from close to fifty countries and many international organisations are gathered here today.
Leading experts with broad knowledge that they are willing to share with all of us. People with vast experience of work to combat intolerance on the local level. People who have dedicated their lives to fighting for democracy – as politicians and as journalists.
Together we make up a huge body of collective knowledge, carrying numerous positive examples of methods that are effective in the fight against antidemocratic forces, xenophobia and prejudice.
This is a chance that we must not miss.
It may never come again.
Let us move from words to action.
Let us combine the knowledge of the experts with the tools of the politicians.
Let us set our sights on the future – a future for our children – one that is far better than our past.
Welcome to two days of hard work.
Welcome to Sweden and the Stockholm International Forum 2001: Combating Intolerance.
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Closing Plenary Session and Declaration
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