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UN report says cultural diversity vital for human development

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NAIROBI, July 15, 2004 (IRIN) — A UN human development report launched on
Thursday argues that respecting cultural diversity could prevent conflict
and enhance development. It urges states to adopt policies allowing people
to choose their own identities without fear of discrimination.

"Cultural liberty is about allowing people the freedom to choose their
identities - and to lead the lives they value - without being excluded
from other choices important to them (such as those for education, health
or job opportunities)," says the Human Development Report 2004 launched by
the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The report, entitled
"Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World", stressed that cultural
liberty was a human right and an important aspect of human development
worthy of state attention and action.

It identified two forms of cultural exclusion. In the first - "mode
exclusion" - groups of people are denied recognition and accommodation of
a lifestyle that a group chooses to have, and an insistence that
individuals must live exactly like all others in society. Examples of this
kind of exclusion include religious oppression or the insistence that
immigrants must drop their cultural practices and language.

In the second - "participation exclusion" - people are subjected to
discrimination or suffer disadvantage in social, political and economic
opportunities because of their cultural identity.

The report noted that both forms of cultural exclusion could lead to
conflict or the suppression of cultural liberties, including the use of
ethnic cleansing, and formal restrictions on the practice of religion,
language and citizenship.

"Policies recognising cultural identities and encouraging diversity to
flourish do not result in fragmentation, conflict, weak development and
authoritarian rule. Such policies are both viable, and necessary, for it
is often the suppression of culturally identified groups that leads to
tensions," the report said.

"Individuals do have multiple identities, and those identities are
complementary, they do not have to be competing; you can have the identity
of being a Kenyan on the one hand, and yet at the same time have the
identity of belonging to a linguistic group, an ethnic group or religious
group," said Santosh Mehrotra, a co-author of the report, when he briefed
reporters in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on Tuesday.

According to the report, cultural differences are not in themselves causes
for violent conflict. "It is not the identity itself, it is the
politicisation of one’s cultural identity," said Mehrotra.

"If states were to take into account of what we call the three Rs -
Recognition [of cultural or religious identity], [political]
Representation and Redistribution [of economic resources]- then it is
possible for states to build multicultural democracies," he added.

The report argued that conflicts in Liberia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Sierra
Leone were not necessarily conflicts of identity, but had resulted from
the politicisation of ethnic identity.
It also said culture did not require the defending of traditional
practices. "Cultural liberty is about expanding individual choices and not
about defending tradition," said Mehrotra.

The report also sought to debunk the myth that ethnically diverse
countries had less ability to develop, and gave the examples of Malaysia
and Mauritius, two multiethnic states that had achieved considerable
economic growth in recent decades. It also said there was no evidence that
some cultures were more amenable to economic development or democracy than
others.

The UNDP report called for policies that promoted equitable growth to
achieve socio-economic inclusion of all groups, noting that in many
African countries, state-based control and distribution of mineral
resources became a key source of ethno-regional wealth disparities and
conflict.

In Sudan, for example, the discovery and distribution of oil became the
major source of post-independence conflict, with the government annexing
oil-bearing land in the south," the report noted.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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