Experts Puzzled by UNESCO Tolerance Prize for City
Published: October 27, 2009 (Issue # 1521)
The city’s human rights community had a mixed reaction to the news that St. Petersburg has been awarded the UNESCO Tolerance Prize for what the United Nation’s cultural wing regards as a major achievement in promoting tolerance.
“The UNESCO decision came as an even bigger surprise than the news about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Alexander Vinnikov, St. Petersburg coordinator of the Russia Without Racism movement. “Neither winners have done anything to deserve the prize, which means the awards were given for political reasons, unfortunately.”
Koichiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO, said the St. Petersburg government program on tolerance had been honored for its “constructive efforts to inculcate mutual respect and tolerance in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society and to prevent and eradicate all forms of discrimination.”
St. Petersburg was officially nominated for the prize by Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. The most visible evidence of the government program has been the distribution on the St. Petersburg metro of flyers with quotations on the theme of tolerance from Russia’s greatest writers and cultural luminaries.
UNESCO’s decision has left people across the political spectrum perplexed. Liberals and nationalists alike spoke about the award with surprise bordering on astonishment.
“I have not noticed any breakthrough in terms of tolerance,” Vinnikov said. “On the contrary, the level of xenophobia in the city remains exceptionally high, which is most alarming.”
Human rights advocates say that many people in government agencies across Russia are xenophobic in various ways and manifest their xenophobia in the course of their official duties. For example, the Police University in St. Petersburg approved and adopted an explicitly anti-semitic textbook of contemporary Russian history. The textbook was banned from classrooms after a high-profile scandal necessitating intervention by President Dmitry Medvedev.
In March this year, the 15-day Xenophobii.NET (No to Xenophobia) campaign ended in arrests when viewers leaving a screening at Rodina film theater in the center of St. Petersburg were dispersed by the police. A group of film-goers, mostly anarchists and members of the antifascist movement, were heading to a metro station after watching the film when the police attacked the group, detained around 20 of them and drove them to a police station, while the rest managed to escape.
In an interview with the BaltInfo news agency, Andrei Kuznetsov, a public relations coordinator for the St. Petersburg branch of the ultra right wing Movement Against Illegal Migration (DPNI), said UNESCO’s experts had made a superficial judgment. Pages: