York, 13 January 2004 - THE INAUGURAL ROBERT BURNS
Minister [Jim] Wallace,
[Scottish Parliament: Deputy First Minister/Minister for
Enterprise & Lifelong Learning]
Ambassador Jones Parry, [U.K.]
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure indeed for Nane and me to be here with you
to celebrate the great Scottish poet Robert Burns and to help you
inaugurate what I hope will become an important series of lectures.
Emyr, I realize you have inherited this event from your
predecessor. Since you are a quintessential Welshman now joining in
tribute to a renowned Scot, I think it only right to congratulate
you for your broad-mindedness, which is truly in the spirit of the
United Nations – and of Burns, too, of course.
Let me also say that my own presence here tonight is not because
I can trace my roots to Scotland. Yes, as we all know, there is a
town of Annan there, whose founding dates back many centuries. And
yes, the town even has a walking club and festival, and that is one
of my favourite pursuits. But my name has a quite different origin.
Let's just say, as Burns himself would, that we are all brothers.
But then, you might well ask why a United Nations
Secretary-General was eager to take part in this event. At first
glance, one might think there is an ocean of distance between the
hard-nosed give-and-take of international diplomacy as it is
practised here in New York, and the lyrical verse that emanated from
rural Scotland two centuries ago. But look closer and I think you
will see why I am here.
To take just one example, Burns was born into poverty, and spent
his youth working on a farm. Burns's poems dignify and illuminate
the struggle faced by the vast majority of the world's population
today. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that Burns had, and I quote,
“given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has
endeared the farmhouse and cottages, patches and poverty, beans and
barley; ? hardship, the fear of debt?.”. End of quote.
Burns has also been described as a poet of the poor, an advocate
for political and social change, and an opponent of slavery,
pomposity and greed – all causes very much supported by the United
Nations. He was even, as a tax collector, a civil servant of sorts,
though I should stress the United Nations has no interest in that
line of work.
But it is one of Burns's most famous lines – “a Man's a Man for
a' That” -- that I should like to serve as the touchstone for my
remarks tonight. And in particular his prayer, in the same poem,
that “Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be for a' that”.
Living together is the fundamental human project – not just in
towns and villages from Scotland to South Africa, but also as a
single human family facing common threats and opportunities.
The year just past has seen dramatic challenges to that project.
The war in Iraq, failed negotiations on opening up the global
trading system, and other events have revealed deep fissures.
These are not just differences over cotton exports or compliance
with UN resolutions. There are worldviews at odds.
For many decades now, states and peoples have woven a tapestry of
rules, institutions, and principles that, it was hoped, would
promote prosperity and protect the peace. Today, this fabric may be
starting to unravel, and I sense a great deal of anxiety about that,
around the world. Not because the system has been uniformly
successful; quite the contrary, war and poverty have proven
painfully chronic. But because it does offer at least some
possibility of order and justice in what so often seems a Hobbesian
world. At a time when it is essential for us to tackle our problems
together, we seem to be slipping into mutual distrust, protectionism
And at such a time, the persistence of prejudice should be
especially troubling to us all. We should all feel pain when women
are denied their freedom and dignity. We should all recognize the
peril to our rights when anyone is dehumanized because of the colour
of their skin, or when indigenous peoples are marginalized and held
in contempt. And we should all recognize the great power of
intolerance to foment violence and generate the conditions that can
abet ethnic cleansing, genocide and terrorism.
One of the most disturbing manifestations of bigotry today is
Islamophobia – a new word for an old phenomenon.
The Crusades and colonialism are just two examples of a poisoned
past in which Muslims were first portrayed as hostile or dangerous,
and then subjected to aggression and domination.
In more recent decades, some have viewed Muslim countries as
culturally unsuited to democracy. The West's late response to
ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia, and the continuing tragic situation
between Palestinians and Israelis, have led many Muslims to wonder
whether their grievances and plight have an equal claim on the
Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States,
which were condemned throughout the Muslim world, many Muslims,
particularly in the West, have found themselves the objects of
suspicion, harassment and discrimination.
And too many people see Islam as a monolith, and as intrinsically
opposed to the West – when in fact Western and Islamic peoples have
a long history of commerce, of inter-mingling and inter-marrying,
and of influencing and enriching each other's art, literature,
science and much else besides.
Despite a discourse of centuries, caricature remains widespread,
and the gulf of ignorance is dangerously deep.
These issues, at once intensely personal and of crucial
importance to all members of society, have far-reaching implications
for international harmony and peace.
Muslims -- reformers and traditionalists, believers and
secularists -- are addressing them with great vigour, in particular
the rights of women, the extremist threat and the contours of
Islamic democracy. Followers of other faiths owe it to them, and to
themselves, to distinguish between disagreement and disdain; and
between fair comment and unfounded condemnation.
It would be unconscionable to add any further to the resentment
and sense of injustice felt by members of one of the world's great
religions, cultures and civilizations.
Another dangerous hatred blights our world: anti-Semitism.
Noone should underestimate the depth of the scars left by the
long history of persecution, pogroms, institutionalized
discrimination and other degradation, culminating in the Holocaust,
that has been inflicted on the Jews.
Yet new wrongs are heaped upon old: by those who seek to deny the
fact of the Holocaust or its uniqueness, and by those who continue
to spread lies and vile stereotypes about Jews and Judaism. The
recent upsurge of attacks on Jews, synagogues, cemeteries and other
Jewish targets in Europe, Turkey and elsewhere, show this hatred to
be, not just the stuff of history, but virulent still
The United Nations itself is still living with the legacy of the
unfortunate resolution that declared Zionism to be a form of racism
and racial discrimination, even though the General Assembly revoked
it in 1991.
In some cases, anti-Semitism appears to be a byproduct of the
Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly with the escalation of
hostilities in the past several years. Criticism of Israeli policies
is one thing. But it is quite another when such critiques take the
form of attacks, physical or verbal, on Jewish individuals and the
symbols of their heritage and faith. The situation is painful and
complex enough as a political matter, without adding religion and
race to the debate.
Noone should be allowed to use criticism of Israel's actions as a
mask for anti-Semitism. Nor, on the other side, should Israel's
supporters use the charge of anti-Semitism to stifle legitimate
discussion. The United Nations, for its part, must reject all forms
of racism and discrimination. Only in so doing, clearly and
consistently, will it be true to its Charter and to the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and to people of all creeds and colours
striving for their dignity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is one thing to bemoan the persistence of prejudice, and quite
another to actually do something about it. All too often, when faced
with bigotry and nihilism, political leaders, Governments and
ordinary citizens are silent or complacent. Such passivity must not
be allowed to masquerade as tolerance. It is more like complicity,
since it emboldens the intolerant, and leaves victims defenceless.
True tolerance is an active, even assertive quality, based on mutual
respect. Its aim must be, not to eliminate differences between human
beings, but to embrace and even celebrate them as a source of joy
That is the world ethic that we need: a framework of shared
values within which different peoples can coexist. Men and women
must be able to follow their own paths without making war on each
other. They must have sufficient freedom to exchange ideas. They
must be able to learn from each other. And that means that each
nation must not only respect the culture and traditions of others,
but must also allow its own citizens – women and men alike – the
freedom to think for themselves.
It is, first and foremost, Governments and individual men and
women who must fulfil these responsibilities of citizenship --
either in the community of nations, or face to face, in the daily
interaction of diverse peoples that increasingly characterizes our
world. But this battle is also of paramount importance to the entire
United Nations, and the Secretariat is strongly committed to doing
its part, including through seminars and educational activities in
the months ahead.
The enterprise of living together is not easy. Including all
people in one's circle of concern requires us to go beyond our
immediate family and friends, and to accept wider notions of kinship
and connection. Even then, things will happen that will strain our
capacity for dialogue and understanding. Burns himself was no
stranger to dark turns of events. As he wrote, “man was made to
But we have just begun a new year, at least according to the
Gregorian calendar. One can almost, still, hear the echo of millions
of people singing “Auld Lang Syne”, Burns's great ode to friendship.
So let us allow hope to be renewed. Let us admire the enduring
resonance of the work of Robert Burns. And let us dream, as he did,
of a true brotherhood -- and sisterhood – that embraces and
encompasses all humankind, and allows all people a chance to enjoy
their inalienable rights, dignity and freedom.
I would like to express my great appreciation to the Scottish
Operations of British Executive Services Overseas for the invaluable
work they carry out in pursuit of that goal, and for their strong
support of the United Nations.
Thank you also to Iain McDonnell of BESO Scotland for putting
this event together, and to the piper(s) who piped me in.
Finally, while I know this is not a traditional Burns supper, I
do hope you will let this hungry Secretary-General try some haggis
at some point in the near future.
Thank you very much.