Aðalráðstefna UNESCO

29th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO
Paris, 24 October 1997

Mr. President,
Director General,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

May I extend my congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your election. The Office of the President of the General Conference carries great weight and influence not only during the General Conference but in the two subsequent years. We therefore wish you well in your endeavours.

Mr. President in recent years UNESCO has had to realign the demands and priorities of its 186 member countries to a zero real growth budget. The responsibility for carrying this out in a pragmatic manner falls primarily on the Executive Board and the Director General. The role of those outside the board is to be constructive and realistic; Iceland's policy towards UNESCO takes note of that.

In our view certain areas are key issues in this respect. One is the universality of UNESCO. We applaud the return of the United Kingdom and look forward to its positive influence.

We welcome the Director General's efforts in recruiting new and especially young staff members. This is crucial for the future of the Organization.

Duplication of the efforts of other international organizations should be avoided and priority given to the tasks the Organization was founded to carry out.

Under the able leadership of Director General Federico Mayor UNESCO has made steady progress in recent years. We have very warm memories of his visit to Iceland in April 1996 and his great impact on those he met there. His pragmatic, but at the same time inspired, approach to the important issues at hand strengthens our faith in UNESCO's ability to deal with the challenges set out for it by its Charter. We therefore strongly encourage Mr. Mayor in his last two years as Director General to continue to pursue his important role as promoter of the core values of UNESCO, while at the same time keeping a firm hand on the management of the Organization.

As we experience the effects of a new world order, which is not based on a bipolar division between different social systems, the crucial role of UNESCO will become still more important. We are faced with a globalization of culture and some people even predict the advent of a global civic society. Such a society would depend on arriving at a consensus on civic virtues, which would require extensive and coordinated effort to achieve on a global scale.

A global civic society will not become a reality unless there is greater consensus on human rights and the rights of all ethnic groups to support and promote their own culture and history. If we fail there are predictions we might experience a clash between human civilizations not dissimilar to the conflicts we have experienced during most of this century between different social systems.

I come from a small nation, that can easily define its cultural roots and which looks upon them as forming the basis for its independence and an important factor in defining its role in international society. I therefore strongly oppose any ideas concerning cultural globalization which could result in reducing cultural diversity. Let us recognize that the mosaic of cultural diversity is a necessary part of a global civic society.

Today we have better means than ever before, in using new information technologies, to inform others about our culture and to learn of theirs. May I commend UNESCO on how the organization itself has used the Internet to promote its work with a splendid home page. Here practically every nation, institution and individual is on the same ground, so to speak, and can give the whole world access to what it has to offer on the Internet.

I see no reason to fear either globalisation in general, nor information technology in itself. Globalisation can make a great difference for less-developed countries, since international integration can offer a fast track out of poverty. With only limited domestic markets, backward technology and inadequate capital, third-world countries have everything to gain from ending their isolation and developing closer ties with the rest of the world. In the end it will be to every one's advantage that some move ahead faster than others. Furthermore, new references and new objectives will be developed.

I have no doubt that, on the basis of its policy, UNESCO will work effectively towards reducing this gap. In this area as in others, nations will acquire the new technology and practical knowledge at varying speeds. My own country, for example, was thrust, in the space of only a few years, into a world of modern technology during the Second World War. Now, just over 50 years later, we stand among the leaders in this respect, and are concerned that our schools and educational systems have not kept pace to steer our youngsters to a sufficient level in this direction. On the other hand, it is clear that both study and instruction will be based on this new technology to an ever increasing extent as time passes. It is important, in fact, that teachers accept this without prejudice and that we produce ambitious instructional materials to make use of this new medium.

Nor may we forget that it offers us invaluable opportunities to preserve and avail ourselves of universal cultural treasures. We Icelanders, for instance, are at present at work on a co-operative project with the Cornell University in the United States to make all of our traditional works of literature (written before 1900) available in digital form on the World Wide Web. Visitors to the site will be able to get to know and to work with medieval manuscripts without disturbing the actual originals. If all goes according to plan, this literary heritage of ours will be accessible to the entire world in this form by the year 2000. I am of the opinion that such projects coincide well with UNESCO objectives to preserve, in a permanent manner, other aspects of cultural heritage than those visible in the landscape.

We appreciate very much UNESCO's work to protect irreplacable expressions of former cultures and natural landscapes of great significance and beauty. This is a truly relevant aim in the age of new technologies, cyberspace and virtual landscapes. I am very pleased to have been the Minister to finally achieve the ratification by Iceland of the World Heritage Convention. This summer Iceland hosted an important seminar aimed at strengthening Nordic cooperation in this field and we hope, before too long, that an application will be submitted for the first Icelandic site to be placed on the World Heritage List.

Information technology gives rise to questions on various sociocultural aspects, especially legal and ethical ones - how, for instance, should authors' copyright to works be protected, how can we prevent misuse, discrimination and violence while at the same time ensuring freedom of expression and cultural and linguistic diversity.

It is my hope that the project "Ethical and sociocultural challenges of the new information society" will bring positive results and prove of substantial assistance to the nations of the world on their way into a new century.

Iceland fully supports UNESCO's plans in the field of information technology as presented in Chapter 5 of the project and budget survey and encourages UNESCO to strengthen this aspect of its work still further in coming years.

At the same time as we look to the future with optimism, hoping the new means of communication will soon enable us to eradicate the suspicions between nations through knowledge and to help as many people as possible acquire the knowledge they choose, we are concerned at man's influence on his environment. This is also a question of a global challenge. Climate change due to higher greenhouse gas levels demands our attention and we need to react to it on a global scale.

It has been pointed out that, although scientific progress has been made occurred on several fronts, the timing, magnitude and geographical distribution of climate changes with respect to higher gas levels can be estimated only inexactly and in limited detail. Still, we cannot ignore the negative signs and need to increase scientific research while at the same time seeking a common solution.

May I draw your attention to the fact that in the North Atlantic surrounding Iceland there are ideal circumstances to study the greenhouse effect and climate change. The North Atlantic is also an area where nations have reached agreement on many areas of fisheries management and the utilisation of resources in such a way that they will not be endangered and can exist in a sustainable manner.

Within UNESCO, as in other areas of international cooperation, principal emphasis should be placed on investigating the "links between marine biology, research on biological productivity, oceanography and environmental research aiming at increasing understanding of the processes of nature and climatic change. Our emphasis should be on a multi-species approach and long-term utilisation of marine biological resources that is sustainable on the basis of their rational conservation and management."

It is important that such research work be effective and well-directed.We have to reach a common understanding on the actual extent of climate change and make it well known to the public. Emotions must not lead goverments to more drastic measures than are necessary.

Next year has been declared the "Year of the Ocean" within the United Nations. The world's oceans are a crucial part of the earth's biosphere, in addition to being the single largest source of protein for mankind. The "Year of the Ocean" must be used to raise public awareness and to reinforce efforts to protect the marine ecosystem. A global, legally binding agreement should be concluded to limit the emission of persistent organic pollutants.

Iceland welcomes the establishment of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, and has great expectations for its work. Ethical questions in science and technology are steadily increasing in urgency and the international community must join in establishing guidelines to prevent unethical exploitation of technology while not restricting its development in medicine, for example. The geographic isolation of Iceland, extensive genealogical information and comprehensive epidemiological records, covering e.g. all registered cases of cancer for almost the entire past half-century, provide unique opportunities for medical research. We hope that this unique data on the geneaological make-up of Icelanders will eventually provide the world with some of the answers to dealing with diseases which today are considered incurable.

Mr. President,

To conclude let me reaffirm Iceland's commitments to the ideals which UNESCO stands for. We have to use this unique forum to promote in a pragmatic manner a truly global civic society based on the respect for cultural and national heritages which reflects the highest aspirations of all humanity.