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Reflections on the tragedy in Norway
Wednesday 3, August 2011
Op Ed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres
GENEVA, August 3 (UNHCR) - A few days ago, we marked the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Refugee Convention, which sprang from the strong 'never again' sentiment prompted by the horrific experience of the Second World War. It has adapted and endured through six decades of massive changes but continues to depend fundamentally on tolerant, open and compassionate states.
Norway is such a state. Led by a Prime Minister whose own father once headed the same organization I am privileged to lead, Norway has long been renowned for its generosity, tolerance and devotion to peace. It is not by accident that it is the home of the Nobel Peace Prize.
That a country such as Norway should be subjected to an attack as utterly brutal and nihilistic as the one it endured on 22 July 2011 is the cruellest of ironies. Everywhere in the world, people were incredulous and heartbroken.
We at UNHCR were particularly saddened. There are among the victims of the shooting on Utoya Island a number of refugees and people from refugee-like situations who had been resettled to Norway precisely because of its peacefulness, tolerance and generosity.
And among those killed in the bombing in Oslo was a former colleague. An individual who had worked with us as a junior professional officer, one of the country's best and brightest. A dynamic, dedicated, hard-working young woman, eager to learn and to share, multilingual, open and cheerful - killed. Even sentences break down trying to make sense of it.
So nearly touched by the tragedy, there is inevitably a danger of sadness giving way to anger. This is understandable. But I believe it would be a mistake.
The apparent perpetrator of the tragedy claims to have carried it out in response to the multiculturalism and pro-immigrant policies in Norway. These he characterized as helping Muslims to 'take over Europe'. The individual's voluminous online manifesto appears to have been at least partly inspired by bloggers and writers around the world warning of the threat posed by Islam. The alacrity with which some media outlets initially attributed the bombing in Oslo to Islamic extremists is telling in this regard, although it seems that at least one extremist group had claimed responsibility for it.
Xenophobia and the vilification of Islam are not the preserve of the wildly homicidal. Such sentiments are unfortunately espoused by a range of often mainstream --if populist-- politicians and some elements of the media, in Europe and elsewhere. Many will protest that there is no necessary link between national chauvinism and murder but in the perpetrator of the crimes in Norway, we see there is no incompatibility either.
In my view, messages of otherness and of exclusion and fear have consequences. They pollute discourse and degrade our societies. They diminish what is best in us, what led to the convention that protects vulnerable and persecuted refugees. They erode the values of tolerance and respect for human dignity that are truly universal, whether set out in international legal instruments or in the traditions of protection and hospitality of cultures and religions, including Islam.
I believe that multiculturalism is a good thing, as well as an inevitability. All societies tend to be multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious. The opposite encourages conflict – a point made articulately by Amartya Sen in his book on religious identity and violence: "The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable."
In anxious times such as the one we are living in, with economies unsettled and global governance transitioning from unipolar to something new but not yet clear, people gravitate to the familiar – to things traditional and reassuring. Newness is not reassuring and neither is change, but these are indubitably aspects of the immigrant.
Whether it is a fear that foreigners will take our jobs or render the reclaiming of a mythical past impossible or perhaps even an unacknowledged deep-seated psychological fear that we could ourselves end up uprooted in other places, the reaction is a common one. The new and non-traditional is a threat and needs to be repelled. Anxiety makes people and societies tighten up and the tightening is directed at immigrants. It's such a common reaction it can be mistaken for natural.
That refugees move involuntarily in search of protection their states are unable or unwilling to provide them is a distinction not commonly made in the discourse on immigrants. Refugees become collateral damage of the anti-immigrant attitudes and policies provoked, I believe, by fear and uncertainty. If we look today in Europe to where economies are most in distress, we see high levels of anti-foreigner feeling, in some places erupting into violence. And in one place erupting into mass murder.
Achieving tolerant, harmonious societies is a long and challenging process. It requires commitment to economic and social inclusion and investment by both government and civil society in the policies that will bring it about. It is what Norway has achieved. That is why people who have survived conflict want to go to places like Norway.
If we are to take something away from the desolation wrought there, let it be a recommitment to the values of generosity, tolerance and peacefulness that the country is known for. Let us celebrate Norway even as we express our deep solidarity with the Norwegian people.
António Guterres is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and former Prime Minister of Portugal.
 Amartya Sen. What Clash of Civilizations? Why religious identity isn't destiny. Slate, March 29, 2006.