It is a great honour for Belgium that this year’s global launch of the Human Development Report takes place in Brussels. It is well known that the Human Development Report is one of the most important UN publications, carefully drafted by top people and supported by leading figures, including Nobel Prize winners. I dare to assume that this year's theme -- Cultural liberty in today’s diverse world –being presented in our country can be regarded as an acknowledgement of the efforts which modern Belgium has made to promote cultural liberty. In fact I am proud to highlight that the report cites Belgium and its federal structures as an example offering valuable lessons for other multicultural states.
Please allow me to explain a few things about Belgium's federal system. Belgium has a diversity of languages. The dividing line between Germanic Europe and Latin Europe runs right through our country. There was a time when French was the dominant language, while Dutch – also known as Flemish – was considered an inferior peasant language. The entire process of cultural liberty and federalism began with the struggle to gain recognition of our own language in education, in the army and in government services.
This process of linguistic emancipation took more than one hundred years. It triggered fundamental changes in our governing structures. Each language group in Belgium – the Dutch-speakers and French-speakers, along with the German-speakers, a group that few people know about – now have their own parliament and government with well-defined powers.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I won't bore you with the full history and structure of Belgian state reform, but I do want to share with you a few lessons that we have learned over the years .
First and foremost, I am convinced that for countries with cultural diversity, federalism is the only option. The process of democratic state reform gives cultures room to forge an identity and grow. Democracy implies giving people sufficient room to develop their own identity. Not taking that route might sooner or later lead to violent struggle. Examples thereof still make headlines on a daily basis: the Balkans, Iraq, Northern Ireland and many more. Governments around the world should recognize this. Cultural liberty is not just an option. It is something democratic governments owe their people.
The second lesson is that installing cultural liberty is not a one-off decision, but a lengthy and sometimes painful process. Those who believe that it can be achieved in a single go are really far too optimistic. It took Belgium several fundamental state reforms to arrive where we are today, one hundred years after it all started. In fact, the process still continues. Step by step, little by little. Splitting up the country could be a quick and simple solution – just look at Czechoslovakia. But that is not what most people in most countries prefer. They want cultural liberty within their country. Such a process implies giving and taking, a spirit of compromise, creativity and sometimes highly technical solutions. It is a gradual and complex process.
Lastly, I am convinced that cultural liberty leads to a higher degree of self-fulfilment and thus to a higher level of human development. In Belgium, every student is encouraged to discover the other national languages. This facilitates mutual communication and openness. Greater autonomy also gives a group greater self-awareness. That is a good thing.
Self-awareness should empower people, it should make them more tolerant. That also is something that we have to work on each and every day. For cultural identity must not turn into group egoism, a closed-off attitude, narrow-minded nationalism or xenophobia. That kind of tribal approach to culture is contrary to human rights and to the society that we are all striving to build. That is why minorities must have just as much respect for other minorities as the respect they expect. Only in this way is it possible to ensure cultural liberty in a diverse world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Cultural liberty is a right people should be able to claim all over the world. I am therefore very pleased and grateful that the UNDP has chosen to elaborate this topic. My sincere congratulations go to the authors of the report.
Congratulations also for the excellent work done again by the UNDP in compiling the wealth of statistical data converging into its famous human development index. Looking at this year’s rankings gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand satisfaction and a touch of pride at my country’s sixth place [-luckily the wheather has not been taken up as one of the criteria !] but on the other hand sadness at yet another confirmation of the hard struggle subsaharian Africa is facing, a continent that is indeed very near to my heart. We must pursue our efforts to revert those negative figures.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am honoured and pleased to give the floor now to the Head of the UNDP, M. Mark Malloch Brown, who will further present this important report.