By: Caitlin Vito
On September 2nd 2014 the ‘The Value in Diversity’ Colloquium was held at the Austrian Parliament in Vienna. The event was co-organised by the ACUNS Vienna-Liaison Office, the Karl-Renner Institute and the SPÖ Parlamentsfraktion. Andreas Schieder, Chairman of the Social Democratic Group in the Austrian Parliament, opened the colloquium and introduced the night’s guest speaker Sir Edward Mortimer. Edward Mortimer is the former director of communications for Kofi Annan and has worked extensively on issues of diversity, immigration and integration.
The evening’s colloquium focused on the value of diversity and Edward Mortimer stressed that diversity, at both the local and national level, is something to be cherished and not feared. However, he noted that for this to be achieved diversity must also be properly managed. As ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity are becoming the norms in many North American and European communities, the issue of immigration and integration is a key topic on both sides of the Atlantic.
Edward Mortimer highlighted some of the central challenges related to diversity. These included which rights should be accorded immigrants and which should be reserved for citizens, such as the right to vote. Moreover, current questions centre on how best to incorporate immigrants into a welfare state system which is under great strain to restructure and reduce costs. Ingrained perceptions that some cultures and religious groups are ‘indigestible’ for local communities also pose a critical challenge. \However, he emphasised that sometimes it is exactly this thinking which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In light of these challenges, Mortimer dedicated the colloquium ‘The Value in Diversity’ to presenting and discussing 10 lessons for policy makers and society as a whole on constructive approaches to diversity, immigration and integration challenges. For the colloquium, Mortimer drew from his book which was co-authored with Timothy Garton Ash and Kerem Öktem titled Freedom in Diversity: Ten Lessons for Public Policy from Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States. The 10 points cover broad thematic areas including: the importance of citizenship; the obligations to citizenship; dual-citizenship; education; labour market access, cities and local communities; representation in the media; the duty to speak out and challenging stereotypes; political participation; and working to change attitudes.
Each of these 10 lessons was based on in-depth studies carried out in Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States. Mortimer highlighted specific examples, such as the critical role of education in shaping an informed citizenry. He argued that schools have the opportunity to forge unity among the populace by encouraging active participation. Among particular points of action Mortimer emphasised the importance of language proficiency in the country’s official language(s) as well as a more comprehensive teaching of history and civics. The colloquium touched on the importance of the powerful cultural signals which can indicate a minority group’s belonging within society. Mortimer referenced the powerful impact of ‘The Cosby Show’ in depicting African Americans in the United States and the Canadian television program ‘Little Mosque on the Prairies’ in portraying a Muslim family living in Canada.
Furthermore, it is also critical that at the local level people create an open environment for newcomers and those of diverse backgrounds. Equally as important is that immigrants make efforts to integrate into their new communities and actively participate. If efforts on both sides are not made it can lead to real difficulties. Examples of this can be seen in some communities in France and the United States. Mortimer noted that this can pose a real danger and that this is currently being demonstrated by the European recruits fighting in Syria.
The colloquium concluded with a lively question and answer session in which Mortimer highlighted that such efforts will go a long way to building respect and trust among the various groups. He noted that this cohesion is in everyone’s interests. However, Mortimer argued that what is ultimately needed is the strict implementation of current human rights standards for all groups living within a country. The tools to manage diversity and to highlight its value are available. What is now needed is that they are properly employed by governments and society alike.