On September 21, 2012, the International Day of Peace, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called for the full respect of all cultures and religions in the context of the current wave of extremist violence and protests.
The ever-present reality of global conflicts spurred by religion, historical differences, and feelings of hatred was on the hearts of minds of delegates attending events that formed part of the International Day of Peace agenda at United Nations headquarters in New York.
With the goal of promoting peace and dialogue, Director-General Bovoka chaired a High Level Debate on the Culture of Peace and Non Violence with the participation of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and several delegates. The panel included luminaries, delegates, arts advocates, and UNESCO officials whose presentations offered philosophical inspiration, calls to action, and practical solutions to systemic conflict.
The speakers stressed the value of formal and informal education, new technologies, and mass media as building blocks of global communication networks and institutions that promote cross-cultural dialogue and peace building. The discussion also emphasized the need to focus on children youth in building a culture of peace.
In addition, the debate revealed a preoccupation with human rights education, investment, and sustainable development in poor, war-torn, and post-conflict societies.
In his remarks, Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute mapped the landscape upon which peace-building efforts should be drawn – a topography of rural and urban poverty, resource exclusion, failed leadership, environmental crises, and other conditions that contribute to the formation of conflicts within and between countries.
Professor Arjun Appadurai offered a layered presentation exploring the challenges with sustaining peace-building processes. His argument encapsulated the pillars of UNESCO’s agenda: universal education, sustainable development, social and ethical development, information and communication, and cultural diversity.
“Our primary challenge is a challenge of communication,” in contrast to mere information, Appadurai said. “The truth is that violence spreads violently, virally and rapidly whereas understanding spreads slowly and unevenly,” he said.
“True communication must include a new way of looking at education, communication and mass media…allowing ordinary people to distinguish information,” said Appadurai.
Sachs agreed and offered one solution: an online university on issues of sustainable development that would complement bricks and mortar curricula. “We can within just a few years transform educational access because of what technology is making possible,” Sachs said.
Actor Forest Whittaker spoke of the power of education to heal and transform communities and youth in conflict, from Los Angeles to South Sudan.
“Education is about having one foot in tradition and the other engaged in building a future for yourselves. What I’ve seen is that youth in conflict have been left out of that,” said Whittaker. “Education is as much transmission as it is compassion; it can help heal the wounds of the past.”
Writer Wole Soyinka referred to the transformative power of literacy and artistic expression. He spoke extemporaneously about his experience of producing a play with young men from violent neighborhoods with gang-policed borders in Kingston, Jamaica.
“[These] kids dared not cross the borders of the garrisons” in which they grew up, Soyinka said. “They decided to start writing sketches about their lives, their hopes for the future.”
In a final round of interventions, a twelve-year-old boy asked the Director-General for suggestions on ways he could engage in dialogue with his peers to involved them in peace-building efforts.
“I find great hope in seeing you with us, in seeing your engagement and intelligence,” Bokova answered. “You are already a global citizen,” she said.
“You have to believe you have the power to change the world,” said Bokova. “This is the way to peace.”