FSU’s Pepper Center to host world leaders at international conference

World leaders from Africa and the Middle East will gather at Florida State University for a first-of-its-kind intercultural dialogue designed to support a United Nations initiative, the Alliance of Civilizations.

The FSU Claude Pepper Center for Intercultural Dialogue will hold “Bridging Civilizations” on Feb. 11 at the FSU Alumni Center. The conference is intended to further the goals of the Alliance of Civilizations, a U.N. initiative launched in 2005 by the prime ministers of Spain and Turkey to promote mutual respect between civilizations and cultures and counter a trend toward extremism that has threatened international stability. It is the first event in the Pepper Center’s “year of dialogue” in which FSU will host other world leaders promoting the Alliance of Civilizations initiative.

President of the Republic of Rwanda Paul Kagame; Yuval Rabin, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; Minister of State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Abdullah A. Alireza; and Michael Oren, best-selling author and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, are among those expected to speak at the February conference. The lectures are free and open to the public, but seating may be limited.

Monsignor William A. Kerr
Monsignor William A. Kerr

“The conference will be an opportunity for the world’s most influential policy makers, business leaders and academics to forge alliances that transcend national and cultural boundaries,” said Monsignor William A. Kerr, executive director of the Claude Pepper Center for Intercultural Dialogue. “It is our hope that these relationships will lead to new foreign policy approaches, faculty and student exchange programs, research opportunities and activism among youth.”

The conference, structured around four sessions, will begin at 8:30 a.m. with an address by Shamil Idriss, acting director of the Secretariat for the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, on the role of the Alliance of Civilizations in advancing international dialogue. Nancy Overholt, executive director of the Institute for International Education, and FSU College of Social Sciences Dean David Rasmussen will discuss the importance of education in promoting cultural understanding. During this session, Overholt and Rasmussen will announce that the Pepper Center will coordinate efforts of a new group called the Alliance Association of Colleges and Universities. The Alliance Association of Colleges and Universities will bring together institutions of higher learning to support the Alliance of Civilizations through research, teaching and outreach programs.

“The Pepper Center hopes to be a catalyst in stimulating universities throughout the world to foster within their academic communities and in collaboration with the worldwide community of colleges and universities a global climate of dialogue,” Kerr said.

The conference will continue at 11 a.m. with Kagame’s address on the role education has played in Rwanda’s dramatic political and economic recovery from a war-ravaged nation in less than a decade. After his speech, Kerr will present Kagame with the “Spirit of Pepper Award.” The Pepper Center created the Spirit of Pepper Award last year to recognize outstanding members of the community who have demonstrated the same qualities and ideals of public service as the late Sen. Claude Pepper.

Kagame, 50, was sworn in as president of the Republic of Rwanda for a seven-term mandate in September 2003 after being elected in the first-ever democratically contested multiparty elections. He had served as president since 2000 when he was unanimously elected to lead the country by the Transitional National Authority. Born in Rwanda, Kagame fled the country as a small child and became a refugee in Uganda. In 1980, he was among the first 27 men who launched a five-year liberation war in Uganda, and he later served as a senior officer in the Ugandan army. In 1990, Kagame returned to Rwanda after 30 years in exile to lead the Rwandan Patriotic Army in the struggle for the liberation of Rwanda.

Kagame has been recognized by many African and international organizations for his work in promoting peaceful solutions to conflict in the region, economic development of the African continent, and the economic and political advancement of women. He recently received the “Abolitionist of the Year 2007” award after Rwanda abolished the death penalty.

Alireza, the former chairman of Saudi Services and Operating Co. and Xenel Maintenance Ltd., will discuss U.S.-Saudi relations during the third session at 3 p.m. As a Minister of State, Alireza is a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers, also called the Cabinet. He also is a member of the Supreme Economic Council of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and has served as vice president of the Saudi negotiating team for joining the World Trade Organization. He works closely with academic institutions and nonprofit organizations worldwide in promoting education and cross-cultural understanding.

At 4 p.m., Rabin will introduce Oren as the conference keynote speaker. Rabin is managing partner of the firm RSLB, headquartered in Washington, D.C. He is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, having achieved the rank of major during his eight years of service. His father, Nobel Peace Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated in 1995 at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

An expert on the diplomatic and military history of the Middle East, Oren has served as a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale and has briefed the White House and testified before Congress on Middle Eastern affairs. His 2002 book, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” was a New York Times best-seller and won the Los Angeles Times’ History Book of the Year prize and the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present,” also was a best-seller.

Raised in New Jersey, Oren moved to Israel in the 1970s and served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces — in the paratroopers in the first Lebanon War, as a liaison with the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the Gulf War, and as an army spokesman in the second Lebanon War. He was the director of Inter-Religious Affairs in the government of Yitzhak Rabin.

The Claude Pepper Center for Intercultural Dialogue, housed in FSU’s College of Social Sciences, supports research, teaching and service projects that promote intercultural understanding and cross-cultural cooperation throughout the world. The center is named for Pepper, who served as a representative in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for nearly 50 years, where he worked for world peace and a global respect for human rights.

Tallahassee’s Figg Engineering Group, a world-class bridge design firm, is one of the sponsors of “Bridging Civilizations.” Figg’s president, Linda Figg, chairs the corporate sponsors of the event. For more details about the conference, visit claudepeppercenter.fsu.edu.