I am privileged to address you today as the representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to the Bucharest Conference, an outgrowth of the work begun by the Assembly in 2002 in response to an alarming spike in anti-Semitic incidents and related violence. Indeed, the Assembly’s timely initiative has led to a sustained focus, by parliamentarians and diplomats alike, on combating this and other forms of intolerance, including racism as well as discrimination against individuals because of their religion.
The reality is that none of our societies is immune from the ignorance, indifference or outright hatred that fosters discrimination, intolerance, and ultimately destruction of every sort. Faced with such social afflictions, each of us has a choice whether to remain complacent, some might say complicit, or to take action. The choice is there for each of us to make.
It would be foolhardy for any of us to suggest that he or she could single-handedly wipeout these virulent viruses that plague society. But the enormity of the challenge should not deter us from taking action within our own spheres of influence no matter how limited they might seem. From our home, school or workplace to the football stadium, town hall square or pages of our local newspaper, each of us can make a difference.
As elected officials, we must recognize our unique responsibility – our obligation — to combat intolerance and discrimination as well as to promote mutual respect and understanding. First we have a duty to use the public platform entrusted to us to speak out when manifestations of hate occur. As Elie Wiesel has rightly observed, “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Additionally, we can and must work to help our governments and people come to terms with the historical truths of our collective past. Perpetuating myth as history only serves to impede this vital and healthy process. Access to accurate information, including archival materials, is particularly relevant in this regard as well as the textbooks used to educate our young people. Education – whether at the dinning room table or the formal lecture hall – is a powerful instrument for overcoming the legacy of the past, promoting social justice in the present, and building a brighter future. As government officials we have a duty to ensure adequate resources for such programs, including Holocaust education. Government alone cannot accomplish all that needs to be done. To be successful, we must reach out in partnership to civil society.
Finally, as legislators, parliamentarians are uniquely positioned to shape laws that help define the limits of conduct in society. At times a daunting task, we face the challenge of ensuring appropriate protection of the targets of hate while preserving fundamental freedoms and human rights. While we may differ on approaches, one thing that we can all agree on is that there can be no neutrality or silence when violence is used against an individual or group.
I have traveled across the breadth of the OSCE region and beyond in connection with my work with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Having just been in the Middle East, I am mindful of the unique role the Mediterranean Partners could play in promoting mutual respect and understanding. During the course of my travels I have made it a point to be in contact with a wide spectrum of society, from the displaced Roma forced to live on the extreme margins and members of minority faith communities denied the right to freely profess and practice their faith to ethnic and racial minorities constantly living in fear for their safety. In each instance, they simply seek the dignity that should be accorded to every human being.
Far too often there is a fixation on differences that blinds us to our common humanity.
In closing, I would note that this year marks the bicentennial of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which banned the slave trade in the British Empire. The words of a courageous abolitionist in the House of Commons, William Wilberforce, should serve as an inspiration to all of us that we must take a stand no matter the seemingly insurmountable odds against success. “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
May we display such determination and dedication in our common efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance and discrimination and work energetically to promote mutual respect and understanding. You and I can make a difference, if we care to. Your presence here in Bucharest is a good starting point. Thank you.