Most independent socio-economic analysts believe Sri Lanka’s foundation needs to be based on spiritual, ethnic and cultural diversity. Therefore, May 21, the world day for cultural diversity for dialogue and development, is of much significance to Sri Lanka. We hope that on all sides petty minded extremists will not be allowed to push Sri Lanka to a point where we will be forced to build on sand and crash when a big storm comes.
In a statement to mark the event, the United Nations laments artistes are unable to make ends meet and the cultural tourism sector has been greatly affected because of the cancellation of cultural events, the closure of cultural institutions, the suspension of community cultural practices, empty UNESCO world heritage sites, the heightened risk of looting of cultural sites and poaching at natural sites.
Around the world, the impact of COVID-19 is felt by the cultural sector. This impact is social, economic and political. It affects the fundamental right of access to culture, the social rights of artistes and creative professionals and the protection of a diversity of cultural expressions.
According to the UN, the unfolding crisis risks deepening inequalities and rendering communities vulnerable. In addition, the creative and cultural industries contribute USD 2,250 billion to the global economy (3% of GDP) and account for 29.5 million jobs worldwide. The economic fall-out of not addressing the cultural sector – and auxiliary services, particularly in the tourism sector -- could also be disastrous.
Describing culture as a source of resilience, the UN says, during this time of mass confinement, billions of people are turning to culture as a source of comfort, well-being and connection. There has been a surge in the creation of and access to cultural content online -- from virtual visits to museums and galleries, streaming of films and even community choirs via social media -- showing its fundamental role as a source of resilience for communities. Throughout history, major crises have often given rise to a renaissance of culture and an explosion of new forms of creativity, so vital for human progress.
Explaining why cultural diversity matters, the world body reveals three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension. Bridging the gap between cultures is urgent and necessary for peace, stability and development. Cultural diversity is a driving force of development, not only with respect to economic growth, but also as a means of leading a more fulfilling intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life. This is captured in culture conventions which provide a solid basis for the promotion of cultural diversity. Cultural diversity is thus an asset that is indispensable for poverty reduction and the achievement of sustainable development. At the same time, acceptance and recognition of cultural diversity – in particular through innovative use of media and information and communications technologies – are conducive to dialogue among civilizations and cultures, respect and mutual understanding, the UN adds.
According to the UN, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2001 adopted the universal declaration on cultural diversity and in December 2002, the UN General Assembly declared May 21 to be the world day for cultural diversity for dialogue and development. In 2015, the UN General Assembly’s second committee unanimously adopted the resolution on culture and sustainable development, affirming culture’s contribution to the three dimensions of sustainable development, acknowledging further the natural and cultural diversity of the world, and recognising that cultures and civilizations can contribute to and are crucial enablers of sustainable development.
Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage dates back to more than 2,500 years when Arahat Mahinda brought the Buddha Dhamma here. The then King Devanampiyathissa was on a deer hunt and Arahat Mahinda proclaimed to him the immortal words, “Stop Thissa, do not kill.” History records that initially the king was annoyed because he was referred to as Thissa. But when he had a dialogue with Arahat Mahinda, he was highly impressed and it changed the course of Sri Lanka’s history. Unfortunately today, culture and its diversity are not given the due place with the ministry of cultural affairs being often given to a not so important politician.
American novelist James Baldwin says people inherit a culture but pay a heavy price for it. Indeed, Sri Lanka has paid a heavy price. We could sustain it only in a spirit of respect for diversity. While we sincerely practice our own spirituality and cultural values, we need to respect the spirituality and cultural values of people of other races and religions. Then only will we experience true freedom or liberation from selfishness.