Civil Society, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

RIGHTS-EU: Minorities Want Acceptance, Not ‘Tolerance’

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Nov 20 2007 (IPS) - “Tolerance? No. I want to talk about acceptance. I don’t want to be ‘tolerated’, I want to be accepted as a disabled lesbian woman,” said Lydia La Rivière-Zijdel, to a lengthy ovation at the event concluding the 2007 European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, in the Portuguese capital Tuesday.

La Rivière-Zijdel, an international consultant on gender, disability and sports, was referring to the central message voiced by activists at the two-day conclusion of the year’s activities launched in January in Berlin, when Germany held the European Union rotating presidency, now held by Portugal.

Their message was that Europe should adopt policies that translate into acceptance of minorities, because the term “tolerance” implies that a generous concession is being made, rather than recognition of the right to full and effective integration for those who are somehow “different.”

The more than 1,000 different activities carried out over the past year in 30 countries, in accordance with the plan designed by Germany, were aimed at raising awareness among people in the EU on the rights of minorities to equality and the benefits to society of diversity, and at informing non-EU immigrants, who often face discrimination, of their rights under the laws of the bloc’s 27 member countries.

The event held in Lisbon Monday and Tuesday drew more than 600 participants from human rights groups, gender equality organisations and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the 27 EU members, and the non-EU countries Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

It was also attended by Vladimir Spidla, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities at the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, and European Parliament Vice President Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou.

As was to be expected, the views of governments and NGO activists seldom coincided at the lively gathering.

Among the activists, a tacit agreement was reached to eliminate the word “tolerance” from the EU’s vocabulary – a term used frequently by governments in their exhortations for better community relations with immigrants, who tend to have darker skin than the average European.

One of the most intense moments of the meeting was when La Rivière-Zijdel spoke. “Difference is positive,” but attitudes that label difference as something to be “tolerated are negative,” she argued.

María da Graça de Vasconcelos, from Portugal, who coordinated the European Economic and Social Council (EESC) NGO Liaison Group with Organised Civil Society in Brussels in the late 1990s, told IPS that she regretted that “no immigrants had addressed the meeting.”

She said La Rivière-Zijdel’s speech was impressive, “because as a disabled lesbian woman she represents two groups that need to be integrated.” But she felt that her presentation was too anecdotal.

Vasconcellos, now retired and working as an adviser to Portuguese trade unions, said she completely agreed with the elimination of the word “tolerance” from EU terminology.

“I think it’s quite right to question the term ‘tolerance’, because it’s a paternalistic word which doesn’t belong between equals. In fact, this was a demand that I wore myself out putting forward a few years ago when I was in Brussels,” said the former NGO Liaison Group coordinator.

Esther Mucznik, vice president of the Jewish community in Portugal and a member of the Commission on Religious Freedom, said that “being tolerant is to accept difference, but the word “freedom” presupposes that difference is part of the norm, that is, it doesn’t require tolerance.”

Mucznik’s intervention was centred on the widest possible definition of the concept of freedom, which integrates difference into the system itself, leading to the conclusion that the degree of freedom in a country can be measured by the extent to which its minorities are integrated.

“There have been times when ‘tolerance’ was the system. In the Middle Ages, Jews enjoyed relative freedom, based on a system of royal protection, which is how minorities were tolerated. Freedom only began to appear, in stages, in the 19th century,” she said.

She cited Portugal as an example, where freedom was achieved “only after the Apr. 25, 1974 revolution,” when leftwing army captains overthrew the 1926-1974 dictatorship of former prime ministers Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and Marcello Caetano, and simultaneously dismantled the repressive and anachronistic colonial empire.

Sérgio Vitorino, the leader of the Pink Panthers Front to Combat Homophobia, said that in his view, 2007 has been the “European Year of Hypocrisy,” because in practice the countries “do just the opposite of the good intentions they proclaim.”

“In Portugal, the case in point is homosexuality, where it cannot escape notice that there is still not a single state institution that definitely concedes the reality of it. How can they talk about fighting inequality and discrimination against homosexuals if they don’t even recognise its existence?” he complained.

According to Elisabete Brasil, the head of the União de Mulheres Alternativa e Resposta (roughly, Women’s Unity – an Option and an Answer, UMAR), the German initiative brought visibility to several areas, but it failed to involve society and social organisations, and ultimately only transmitted a message.

“Most people we work with don’t even know that this is the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All,” said Brasil, who was disappointed that the occasion was not used to involve young people and children “as an investment in the future, because if we want to educate our populations, we must include the youngest children.”

Portuguese cabinet minister Pedro Silva Pereira compared the work done during this year to “intensive sowing” of values and attitudes, which in future will yield a harvest “of the good fruit of a more just Europe.”

Silva Pereira pointed out that the measures taken by Portugal have placed it “second in the international ranking for its policies to integrate immigrants,” after Sweden.

Portuguese Minister for Labour and Social Solidarity José Vieira da Silva warned against the danger of discrimination, which he said destroyed social cohesion.

“The least cohesive societies, with the highest poverty rates and the most exclusion, are those which most easily develop discriminatory mechanisms,” he said.

Vieira da Silva’s words were echoed by the vice president of the European Parliament, who said that the bloc as a whole defends equality as a value, and that the Parliament “is convinced we need to go further.”

“A society with more just laws is not necessarily a more just society. There is a great deal of in-depth work to be done on people’s attitudes in order to convert the EU into a promised land of happiness and diversity,” said Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou in her closing remarks.

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