Aðalráðstefna UNESCO - París - enska

Statement by Mr. Björn Bjarnason Minister of Education, Science and Culture of the Republic of Iceland 30.

Session of the General Conference of UNESCO
Paris, 28 October 1999.

Mr. President, Director General, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, let me extend my congratulations to you, Mr. President. The Office of the President of the General Conference carries great weight and influence, not only during the General Conference but also in the two subsequent years. We therefore wish you well in your endeavours.

Mr. President!

Earlier this month the Icelandic government, in cooperation with the Nordic Council of Ministers and the United States government, and with the participation of the First Lady, Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton, held an international conference on Women and Democracy at the Dawn of the New Millennium. Most of the participants were from the Baltic states, Russia and the United States, as well as from the Nordic countries. The important discussions at the conference confirmed the great changes in the economic and social position of women. It is clear that women's lot differs greatly between countries. We hope, as do others who participated in this successful conference, that decisions made there regarding important individual projects will strengthen the position of women all over the world.

Women are very active in education and cultural affairs in Iceland. Without their participation the Icelandic school system would be virtually inoperable because of lack of teachers. This applies especially to nursery and primary schools, where the great majority of teachers are women. More women than men now attend the University of Iceland. Women are also at the forefront of Icelandic culture. One could say they are the pillar of the Icelandic music scene and they are, to give an example, very prominent in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. In the sciences, women are also playing an ever greater part.

I want to emphasise these facts here at the outset, because women will become much more active in carrying out the important tasks that are UNESCO's responsibility. We must also realise, that the education of women and respect for women's work is the most sensible way to improve the lot of all the nations of the world. In this respect, it is very important that we increase our efforts to combat illiteracy under the auspices of UNESCO. To this end, the programme "Educating for a sustainable future" is of great importance.

In the coming century, UNESCO's organisation and operations need to take increased account of these facts. UNESCO must not only adapt to changed circumstances due to developments in international relations between states, but must also take into account social changes within its member states and those factors that have the greatest bearing on their political affairs.

Looking at UNESCO's internal operations, I am for example of the opinion, that the methods employed in selecting representatives to the Executive Board are not in accordance with modern standards. The selection process is too complex, costly and cumbersome, with regard to the interests of the many member states, who vary in both wealth and population.

We live in a time of constant changes. Those who fail to make use of the opportunities provided by these changes will stagnate, and are in real danger of being left by the wayside. In times of change it is also important to preserve the best of the past. UNESCO has an important part to play in this field. The protection and preservation of cultural heritage is of great importance to individual states, and to the community of nations. In this area, encouragement from UNESCO, support of essential projects, training in conservation, and a general increase in professional knowledge can be of vital importance. It is necessary to arouse the interest of young people and to harness the media in support of this worthy cause.

Iceland declares its unequivocal support for the "Memory of the World" programme. There is no less need to preserve the cultural heritage not in everyday view as that represented by buildings or other tangible artefacts. Icelandic culture is based upon the written and spoken word. Even today we speak and write the same language as our forefathers did some 800 years ago, when they first committed the sagas to parchment.

For those nations, whose goal it is to speak their own language, the struggle to preserve it will never end. Their struggle is not based on hostility to the languages of other nations, only on the demand, which they make of themselves as well as others, that people's basic right of deciding for themselves what language they wish to use should be respected.

Because of the advent of information technology, languages must now adapt to new demands. It is not enough to fight for their right to be used in direct human communication, now we must safeguard their rights in a world of computers and other communications equipment. We have reached an agreement with the powerful computer company, Microsoft, to ensure the position of the Icelandic language in the company's programming. It is also vitally important to ensure that letters, which are special to individual languages, be acknowledged by font designers and producers.

The Icelandic government is planning an initiative, aimed at safeguarding still further the position of Icelandic in the virtual reality of computers. There is widespread interest in international cooperation regarding projects of this kind. I believe UNESCO is well suited to play a role in this field, since respect for languages is of great importance when it comes to promoting cultural diversity.

One of the UNESCO programmes, which have become established in Iceland, is the World Book Day. This is celebrated every year and encourages debate on the state of the book in a new environment. Although people have less time for reading books than they did before, there has been no decrease in book publication. The Book and Copyright Day plays an important part in making UNESCO visible to Icelanders, and we should look for other events that could publicise the important work of the organisation. It would, for example, be fitting, if UNESCO were more active in promoting creative art. Initiating programmes with the cooperation of artists would enhance UNESCO's visibility and open up new avenues.

Lifelong learning day was held in Iceland this autumn to draw attention to the value of lifelong learning and the opportunities available in this field. Lifelong learning is the main pillar of the knowledge society. In modern society no one can reach his full potential except by acquiring an education and cultivating it for the rest of his life. We aim to hold an annual event on lifelong learning, in accordance with the UNESCO General Conference declaration on adult education.

Last year Iceland hosted a study group from UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning. We took great pleasure in acquainting them with our system of education, which has been greatly overhauled in recent years. This summer saw the introduction of new curricula for nursery schools, as well as primary and secondary schools, where great emphasis is placed on the use of information technology. I have put forward the suggestion, that all secondary school students should get their own laptop computer - with public support if necessary - since computers are fast becoming an inherent piece of their school equipment.

We are constantly facing up to new tasks and challenges. For instance it is clear that in genetic research Iceland has the opportunity to be the first to examine the role of the new genetics from legal, medical and ethical viewpoints. We are in the process of putting the methods of the new genetics to the test. This has created a heated debate in all fields of society, but it is clear that the vast majority of Icelanders are willing to submit data to an Icelandic healthcare database, which is now under construction.

Iceland puts great hope in the work of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. 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, for example in medicine.

Mr. President

The time has come to bid farewell to Federico Mayor, as he will soon be leaving the post of Director General of our organisation. I would like to end by thanking him for the pleasure of working with him these roughly four years that I have served as Minister of Education, Science and Culture. I particularly enjoyed his visit to Iceland. I wish him well, and hope that his great energy and interest may continue to be of service to all humanity.

I congratulate the incoming Director General Ambassador Matsuura and wish him great success. It will not be easy for anyone to follow in Mr. Mayor's footsteps. UNESCO will continue to need a Director General who can provide strong leadership, and who has the capability to lead the organisation into new fields in the new millennium. We will not be successful, except by emphasising the factors that are at the root of all UNESCO's work: education, culture, science and communication. If these factors are allowed to play a greater part in the lives of all mankind, the world will become a better place.