Education | Speeches

"Education engenders dialogue and understanding between different viewpoints"

33rd Session of the General Conference of UNESCO

Paris, France

October 3, 2005

I am indeed happy and honoured to be amongst this august gathering and to be associated with the inauguration of the 33 rd Session of the General Conference of UNESCO. I wish to thank the President of the General Conference, for the kind words of welcome.

May I also thank the Director General Mr Koïchiro Matsuura for the invitation extended to me to address this important conference. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Matsuura for being nominated for a second term at the helm of UNESCO. This is a clear testimony of the confidence the UNESCO Membership places in you, and in the direction you have steered UNESCO into the 21 st century. We wish you even greater success in your forthcoming term.

I was in New York two weeks ago to address the United Nations General Assembly and to participate in its celebration of sixty years of existence. The 60th Anniversary of UNESCO is also celebrated this year, as UNESCO was one of the first few Specialized Agencies to be founded a few months after the UN on 16 th November 1945. If we are to reflect upon the past briefly, we know that at that time a shattered world reflected on the need to have in place a framework to prevent for all time the necessity of war. The mandate given to UNESCO embodies the basic values and the spiritual and intellectual basis of human existence. The Preamble of the Constitution of UNESCO captures the very essence of this organization, stated as follows;

"That the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern".

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

Education is central to human existence. Education undertakes the development and refinement of that most supremely powerful, human asset – the mind. Through education we gain knowledge of the experience of past generations; we acquire the ability to create scientific and technological advances in order that we live better. Education also equips us to create the artistic, cultural and spiritual frameworks that are the essential requisites for a meaningful human existence. In other words, Education in its multifarious forms, is the bedrock of understanding between humans, which is a pre requisite for Justice, Liberty and Peace.

UNESCO as the UN systems' specialized agency for education is entrusted with the noble responsibility of education development which will give rise to the promotion of the other areas of UNESCO's activities, the Sciences, Culture and Communications which would then evolve the environment and conditions for peace.

Education engenders dialogue and understanding between different view points, cultures and value systems. Today, more than even before, the world needs to inculcate a culture of dialogue and understanding, if we are to extricate ourselves from the vicious cycle of intolerance, violence and terrorism that is enveloping the globe.

UNESCO bears a major responsibility in promoting dialogue among peoples, communities and Nations, so that we acknowledge and appreciate the richness of diversity and build unity in diversity. The world exists and goes around based on, the richness of its diversity, drawing sustenance from it. That diversity finds expression in the artistic creations of individuals, of communities and of Nations, which finally constitute their cultures.

Culture and the Arts embody the spirit of Man, the unconquered, inconquerable spirit of Man, the one thing that has defied conquest by other men.

I consider that we, the United Nations of the world, have a sacred duty to ensure that we protect human diversity and also national diversity in all its manifestations.

We can never permit one vision, one set of ideas, one project to englobe the whole world.

How horribly poor, how dangerously oppressive it would be!

In this context, Sri Lanka hopes that this General Conference would adopt the draft "Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions."

The Dakar Framework for Action committed the member governments to the achievement of the goal of Education for All by 2015. Basic education is given foremost priority, while equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes, adult literacy, eliminating gender disparities are some of the main areas identified for implementation. This year the General Conference of UNESCO has given due focus to this vital challenge. We are appreciative of the role played by UNESCO under the constructive efforts of Director General Matsuura to realize these objectives.

Sri Lanka since independence has maintained its interest and focus on educating our children. In fact Sri Lanka became a member of UNESCO in 1949, even before we took membership in the UN. I accepted this invitation with much delight and anticipation, as education is a subject in which I have always maintained a passionate interest. Hence, inspite of my heavy responsibilities as President, I also hold the education portfolio. While being proud of our 92% literacy rate for both men and women, the highest in South Asia, we saw the need to introduce comprehensive reforms in the Education Sector to keep pace with a fast changing and globalised world.

Sri Lanka has already achieved several of the EFA goals in primary education, gender parity, infant and maternal mortality. Our EFA development Index is 0.95, placing us close to completing EFA goals. My Government's vision of development accords top priority to education and health. We have tripled budgetary provisions for education for the past ten years. At present, expenditure per student as a proportion of national per capita income in primary and secondary education is around 11% and 100% for University education.

We possess nearly ten thousand schools for a child population of 4.2 million. Under our new education reforms plans we have undertaken the development of 750 existing school as fully equipped "Smart Schools", new competency based and outcome oriented curricula have been introduced for all subjects, focusing on science, maths, IT and Foreign languages. Improved educational materials, new systems of examination and performance assessment of not only students but also of teachers as well as accountability and school based management have been introduced.

Mr President, I wish to express a few thoughts about UNESCO's other important mandate – that of peace. Peace can only be acquired through economic development to eliminate poverty and despair and through dialogue and understanding. Education is the essential bedrock for all this. President François Mitterand once said "Peace is a battle. Peace is never given freely, never acquired. Its conquest is the result of courage and of respect for others. It demands awareness and commitment from everyone. Peace is not the law imposed by the mighty, but that which is founded on equality and dignity of all peoples." UNESCO can play an essential role in creating conditions for peace through programmes for culture, education interaction and continued dialogue between communities and nations.

Sri Lanka has suffered deeply from the lack of peace for twenty long years. An ethnic conflict leading to terrorism has had terrible consequences on our human and limited natural resources. Worse – it has afflicted the very soul of our nation, increasing violence, criminality, alcoholism and suicide.

My Government initiated a plan of conflict resolution through a negotiated political settlement for our national problems. It has given some positive results, but we have much more to achieve.

We have also commenced, a new programme for the protection of the child. Our National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) implements many programmes to eliminate abuse and violence against children and ensure their protection as well as their right to enjoy freely, life's most precious gift – childhood. Our success is due to the outcome of sustained efforts in policy planning and implementing.

The Millennium Development Goals call for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective means to combat poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance and to stimulate all round development. All eight Millennium Development Goals are closely linked to women. The achievement of these goals and gender equality and empowerment of women are intrinsically dependent on each other. We have had people-centred development and welfare policies from the mid 1940s. This has ensured Sri Lanka a high place in the UN Human Development Index. My Government has implemented pro-poor policies to eradicate poverty as well as to strengthen programmes for gender equality and development of women. We have a Women's Bureau since 1978 and a Women's Ministry, which includes social welfare and a National Committee of Women which implements Sri Lanka's Women's Charter. It has many achievements to its credit including the role in amending the Penal Code to identify new offences and enhance punishment for sexual offences.

We have a remarkable female literacy rate. Enrolment in universities is high, with comparatively high rates of employment of females at executive levels. High literacy rates have resulted in high standards of maternal and child care. We have now achieved zero gender disparity in implementing Millennium Development Goals, and Education for All.

I wish to take this opportunity to express a word of appreciation to the Director General for taking the initiative to assist Sri Lanka in many ways following the Tsunami that devastated two thirds of our coastal areas last December. Hundreds of schools were destroyed and many thousands of children affected. My Government gave special attention to the building of schools and getting the affected children back to school, at the earliest opportunity. It is a precious and much felt right which could not be denied under any circumstances. UNESCO quickly established a special office to assess the damage and destruction and to assist in the field of education and culture. We are also appreciative of the leading role played by UNESCO in the establishment of a Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the Indian Ocean.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many questions are being raised today on the concept of the UN family and work within the entire UN system. We do recognize and accept that UNESCO, as a specialized agency of the UN, has a challenging task in fulfilling its vision and mission. We believe that UNESCO's mandate remains important and firmly relevant. UNESCO's strength lies in the forum it provides to create and inspire ideals, which have to be translated into action for the benefit of mankind.

Let us join together and work together in this common quest for a better world for our future generations.

Thank you.



President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at the 33rd Session of the General Conference of UNESCO in Paris,
October 3 – 7, 2005