Education was a primary tool for building a culture of peace, and the United Nations had rightly placed it at the forefront to that end, speakers said today as the General Assembly held a high-level forum on that topic. Assembly President Vuk Jeremić (Serbia) recalled that the 193-nation body had adopted the Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace 14 years ago, noting that Member States “rightly chose to put education first on the list of necessary actions, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that ‘if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.’”.
The Assembly President went on to emphasize that children — in the classroom and at home, through the books they read and the web pages they browsed — must learn to act with tolerance and understanding of others, forswearing violence. They must learn more about equality of opportunity and social justice; human dignity and rights; love of one’s neighbour and compassion for the most vulnerable.
Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson described the present time as a moment in history when a culture of peace — not merely the absence of war, but a fully formed culture of peace — was needed for people around the world to pull together as a single human family and meet shared challenges. He noted that Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative focused not only on giving children an education, but also on global citizenship rooted in solidarity and mutual understanding. “The goal of building a culture of peace permeates the work of the United Nations,” he added.
Following those opening remarks, Patriarch Irinej of Serbia emphasized the importance of faith in God, saying that “without such spirituality, war is unavoidable, even if the world is to be inhabited by only two human beings, even as two born brothers, like it once was with Cain and Abel.” A culture of peace was incompatible with the cult of selfishness and with the “absolutization of egotistic interests”, he emphasized.
Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director in the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances of the Islamic Society of North America, outlined how different religions could work together, recalling that churches in the United States had invited newly-arrived Muslims in the 1950s and 60s to use their facilities for their Friday prayers and other events. The question for those Muslims had been how to relate with the large number of Jewish Americans and how to overcome the “elephant in the room” — the Israel-Palestine conflict. Coming together, the two communities had created the Children of Abraham project in order jointly to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the United States, he said.
Dipu Moni, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh, stressed that “peace is not just the mere absence of war”, pointing out that many countries around the world suffered discrimination, terrorism, human rights violations, abject poverty and other major challenges. Bangladesh had brought the draft resolution on a Culture of Peace to the General Assembly in 1997. Having firmly upheld the concept during its fight for achievement, it celebrated the festivals of all four of its major religions and was a rare example of a State that had resolved disputes with its neighbours.
Anwarul Chowdhury, Chair of the General Assembly drafting committee for the United Nations Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace, spoke on behalf of civil society, noting that the power of non-violence had been demonstrated by the sacrifices of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. With ever-expanding militarism a cause for concern today, the approach of Daisaku Ikeda, the living apostle of peace — the positive, active pursuit of peace, as opposed to “passive peace” — was inspiring to millions, he said, underlining also the role of women in making peace. “Without peace, development is impossible, and without women, neither peace nor development is possible,” he said.
Elie Abadie, M.D., Rabbi of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York City, said that from the outset, the idea of a culture of peace had consisted of values, attitudes and behaviours that rejected violence. Unfortunately, the world was still witnessing wars among and within nations. In Jewish tradition, one of God’s names was Shalom, meaning “peace”, he noted. “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” he continued, adding that religions must pride themselves on the level of their adherents’ tolerance and understanding of others.
Today’s forum also featured three panel discussions, the first titled “The Role of Interfaith Cooperation in Promoting a Global Culture of Peace”; the second “The Culture of Peace as the Agenda for a New Global Civilization: Where are we now?”; and the third, “Strategy for Advancing the Implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Culture of Peace: What are needed?”.
The General Assembly met this morning to hold its High-Level Forum on the Culture of Peace, as requested by resolution 67/106 (2012) on “Follow-up to the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace”.
Panel Discussion I
John O. Voll, Georgetown University Professor, moderated the first panel discussion, which also featured the following panellists: Katherine R. Henderson, President, Auburn Seminary; Matthew Hodes, Director, United Nations Alliance of Civilizations; William F. Vendley, Secretary General, Religions for Peace; and Hüseyin Hurmali, Chief Administrative Officer, Journalists and Writers Foundation.
The Moderator cited Albert Einstein to the effect that “the world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” He then introduced the panellists as “those who are doing something about it”.
Ms. HENDERSON said her 200-year-old seminary promoted deep, multifaceted engagement for the sake of justice. “There is no peace without justice,” she said, clarifying the purpose of engagement and cooperation. She also stressed the need for religious communities to address poverty and other ills, saying partnership was vital to the attainment of those objectives. While partners may not follow the same creeds or texts, they had a similar vision. Noting that her institution had been trying to foster a new generation of youth leaders over the past 12 years, she said old-school Christian ministers had known only their own creeds, but today’s religious leaders must know the creeds of other faiths as well. In conclusion, she stressed the importance of realizing the interdependence that connected people to each other.
Mr. HODES said organized religions promoted tolerance, life, compassion and forgiveness, among other shared values that were vital to conflict prevention and reconciliation. But religion could be toxic as well, he emphasized, citing the former Yugoslavia, where members of the clergy had fed conflict. In Pakistan and Nigeria, girls had been killed and children burned because of sectarian divisions, he noted. On the other hand, religion could be used for peace, he said, recalling that religious mediators had helped to end 15 years of civil war in Mozambique. Interfaith dialogue was a primary tool, if not a panacea, for building a culture of peace, he said, declaring in conclusion: “Failure to talk is a guarantee of failure.”
Mr. VENDLEY raised the question: “How can the religions contribute to the culture of peace?” People talked about inalienable rights but were “rather mute” about the basis for those rights. The world’s religions, however, were looking into themselves for justifications. Emphasizing that there could be no culture of peace without virtuous people, he described virtues as habits of tolerance, compassion, empathy and love that must be cultivated. No matter the importance of material prosperity, people must look into remarkable human virtues to achieve a culture of peace, and that was where religions could help, as they were great schools of virtue, he said. Although religions had different doctrines, they could still have shared values or care. “Care calls us to act; shared care calls us to act together”, he said, stressing that religious communities could work together in coping with common human problems.
Mr. HURMALI quoted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General: “Peace is more than the absence of war, it is living together with our differences — of sex, race, language, religion or culture.” In order to be effective in promoting the culture of peace, interfaith dialogue initiatives should not be designed and implemented only in post-conflict regions, but should be part of everyday life in all countries. Very peaceful societies could some day turn very violent due to clashes between religious and ethnic groups, he cautioned, adding that all initiatives that advanced a culture of peace should be established and promoted in all nations to prevent future conflicts. Describing ignorance as one of the biggest enemies of peace, he emphasized that political, economic and legal regulations for sustainable peace could never have a lasting effect if people were not educated on universally accepted values such as human rights, freedom of expression, equal opportunity, peaceful coexistence and, above all, “wishing for others what one wishes for him- or her-self”.
Following those presentations, the representative of Saudi Arabia stressed the need for a mechanism to implement the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace. He said a centre for international dialogue had been established in his country to promote a culture of peace, and the Government had invested in the establishment of an international centre to fight terrorism and extremism.
Panel Discussion II
U. Joy Ogwu, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, moderated the second panel discussion and introduced the following panellists: Abul Kalam Azad, Minister for Cultural Affairs, Bangladesh; Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director for Intergovernmental Support and Strategic Partnerships, UN-Women; Azim Khamisa, Founder, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation; Tiffany Easthom, Country Director for South Sudan, Nonviolent Peaceforce; and Grace Akallo, Founder and Executive Director, United Africans for Women And Children Rights.
Mr. AZAD stressed the need for renewed emphasis on the culture of peace, and outlined his own country’s policies and efforts to that end. He underlined the importance of education to inspire everyone, regardless of identity, and underscored the importance of working through the arts to bridge cultural gaps across civilizations. Calling for a global summit and regional conferences to help people understand different belief systems, he said a culture of peace would help the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals and the crafting of a post-2015 development agenda. Urging better awareness of the benefits of a culture of peace, he called for more support for well-coordinated United Nations action to implement the relevant Programme of Action.
Ms. PURI provided a gender perspective, stressing that gender justice was central to broader social justice and that asymmetries were bound to lead to conflict. Underlining women’s centrality to the quest for the establishment of a culture of peace, she said war had begun “in the minds of men” but peace could be said to begin “in the minds of women”. Great strides had been made for women and girls, and people were realizing the importance of women to the progress of civilization. Nonetheless, women and girls faced daily inequalities and the structural causes of discrimination must be tackled, she emphasized.
Mr. KHAMISA described how the murder of his son had led him to devote himself to protecting children. There were victims at both ends of guns, he noted, emphasizing that the enemy was really the societal forces pushing boys like his son’s killer into gangs at the age of 11 and into murder at age 14. Violence was learned, so non-violence could be learned as well, he said, describing how programmes with which he was associated had helped to reduce violence, and how that could be relevant to the work of the United Nations.
Ms. EASTHOM shared some of her organization’s practical strategies for building a culture of peace in the field and in conflict situations. Unarmed civilian peacekeepers from Nonviolent Peaceforce provided direct physical protection to civilians affected by violent conflict and helped to prevent further outbreaks of violence, she said. The presence of unarmed peacekeepers had reduced sexual violence and boosted crop harvests on female-run collective farms. They had also stopped cyclical violence between agriculturalists and cattle herders in South Sudan. She acknowledged the complexity of peace, but noted that the recent dry season was the first that locals could remember in which no killings had occurred.
Ms. AKALLO said she had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army as a child, stressing that child soldiers were always pictured as boys holding AK-47s. While acknowledging the suffering of boys, she said girls faced multiple layers of suffering. They also had to fight, but were also forced to become wives and mothers. Those who escaped and returned to their communities were ostracized and often fell into sex work. Child soldiers would only be a “lost generation” if the world allowed it, she emphasized.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, the representative of Cuba, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, described how the group was geared to ensuring peace in the region. Cultural diversity was a regional characteristic and the basis for cooperation and interaction.
Also taking part in the discussion was a representative of the non-governmental organization Society for Public Health Education.
Panel Discussion III
Carlos Enrique García González, Permanent Representative of El Salvador, moderated the third panel and introduced the following panellists: Federico Mayor, President, Foundation for a Culture of Peace; Nancy Roof, Founder, Kosmos: the Journal for World Citizens Creating the New Civilization; Mikiko Otani, international human rights lawyer; Abigail E. Disney, filmmaker, co-Founder, Gbowee Peace Foundation, and President, Fork Films & Peace Is Loud; and Patricia Smith Melton, Founder, Peace X Peace.
Moderator GARCÍA GONZÁLEZ said humanity faced a significant dilemma involving its own survival. The United Nations had decided that humanity needed to build a culture of peace, and those words could not remain empty; they required a higher level of awareness. Today’s discussion had looked at the issue of a culture of peace from spiritual, religious, economic and several other perspectives. The panellists would add their viewpoints and aim to link the discussion with current United Nations agendas, he said.
Mr. MAYOR said the culture of peace was becoming an “essential point of reference” for the United Nations. Addressing the panel’s main question, “What is needed?”, he said education was a key imperative. “Education is to contribute to the formation of human beings that are free and responsible,” he stressed. Discussing peace began at the personal and local levels, and daily behaviour, awareness and involvement were critical, as “we must be actors in our lives”. Several countries in Latin America today mentioned the culture of peace, while Africa had held a continent-wide meeting on the subject, and was forming a related network. However, bringing about a culture of peace required action on the part of women and youth. Today, unlike in the past, young people were able to express themselves and could advocate for peace.
Ms. ROOF said that the culture of peace embraced the number-one concern of all humanity. “We are here because we care that people are in pain and suffering. We are outraged at the injustices we face daily.” New communication technologies allowed people to share experiences on a global basis, and the human race was moving into a new era, she said. Meanwhile, efforts during the present “in-between time” should focus on building a new consciousness and capacity for peace. “These changes are happening right now in every country of the world,” she emphasized. A focus was also needed on prevention and on developing a new wellness model. The approach must be inclusive, spanning from personal and local development to movement on the national and international levels. Strategies must be linked and work collaboratively, she stressed, saying no single group “has the answer”.
Ms. OTANI said children faced many challenges daily, stressing that preventing violence in one generation reduced its likelihood in the next. Therefore, protecting children from violence was a key strategy for promoting freedom, peace and justice throughout the world. The United Nations had proclaimed 2001-2010 the International Decade for a Culture of Peace, and “our responsibilities must remain unchanged beyond the decade”. Among other things, women should be empowered and the participation of children as partners in the family encouraged. Finally, she stressed peace must be recognized as a “self-standing” human right that would make the culture of peace more meaningful.
Ms. DISNEY said that, as a United States citizen, she would focus her comments on her national culture. Describing the United States as a major exporter of both weapons and the “entertainment industrial complex”, she said it was also responsible for an almost eroticized “mythology of violence”. The words “non-violence” and “peace” were not respected, and violence was hardwired into national culture, she said, adding that such a focus on violence represented a “deadening” of the imagination. The central challenge of the twenty-first century was for people, including the media and the entertainment industry, to understand the consequences of their decisions. Peacebuilding would be difficult for Americans, as it would demand that they ask tough questions about their choices and push back against the status quo. Nevertheless, “we need to wake this country up from its sleeping”, she said. Peace was a series of choices, she concluded, adding: “You make it.”
Ms. MELTON said that humans had developed consciousness in the context of a vast universe. “We need to figure out how to live well, here and now,” she said, recalling that the world was still plagued by many challenges, including war. Building the culture of peace was, therefore, the highest calling, and nothing was more needed, more precious, more vital or more valuable than the work of caring for one another. Individuals and cultures must have the courage of forgiveness, and all people must work to cooperate with, rather than destroy, others. The flood of information created by people speaking out was the collective human consciousness “sorting itself out,” she said. Every human was a point of consciousness, and everyone was responsible for discovering and loving one another. The female principles of love and inclusiveness were imperative to peace, she stressed. “When the mess is so big, our vision must be clearer,” she warned, urging participants to follow their personal visions on the path towards a culture of peace.