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May/June 2011
Vol. 36, No. 3


UNESCO: How to strengthen peace today

The following report was written by Maryknoll Sister Elizabeth Zwareva, a volunteer with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

On March 11, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held a high level panel, comprised of about 20 professionals – journalists, entrepreneurs and religious leaders – entitled "Building peace: Reconciliation through the power of education, the sciences, culture and communication"; the public event was attended by more than 450 people. The occasion also marked the culmination of the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World. In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the values, attitudes and behaviors that form the cornerstone of peace: diversity, tolerance and dialogue.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova opened the discussion by posing the following questions: "What does peace mean today? How can we strengthen it between states and within societies?"

Although the Secretary General had indicated some of the obstacles to building peace – violence, bigotry, intolerance and exclusion – Bokova reiterated the current problems the world is facing today. She said, "Humanity is moving around more than ever before. Internal conflicts are on the rise. People are more connected, but other forms of inequalities are emerging. People and cultures do not weigh the same in the balance of globalization. Values, traditions, customs and cultural expressions are moving to the front of national politics and global trends." In relation to these points it is important to remember that UNESCO was created to help the United Nations' efforts towards building peace through its contribution in the areas of education, science, culture, communication and information; UNESCO's constitution declares that "if war starts in the minds of men and women, it is in these minds that the defenses of peace must be built."

The first step towards building the defenses of peace is recognizing the basic problems that generate conflict. The issues that negatively affect the efforts of peace building include: gender inequality (which denies women and girls access to education and employment); a deficient educational system (affected by constant war); and misinformation (which generates conflict among religious groups). Disadvantaged groups use force to obtain desired goods, and often, in that process, recruit children for combat. The aftermath of war leaves physical, psychological, and emotional scars in addition to trauma and stigmatization which affect their ability to learn.

A documentary on child soldiers in Africa produced by panelist and actor Forest Whitaker was presented to the attendees; Whitaker's piece showed the fate of children who were abducted and forced to become militants. The young boy and girl interviewed in the film are epitomes of what happened to the majority of children post-war: Acceptance into the community and the chance to get an education helped the boy find approval, self-confidence and dignity, while on the other hand, the young girl, who was rejected by her community, continued to live psychologically the ravages of war, and to experience constant flashbacks. This pre-disposition is a sure path to violence. Having learned to kill, children need to learn how to build peace. The documentary is an example of how communication, film, and the arts can help re-educate children for peace.

Educating the child's emotional and psychological self assures an environment of collaboration and self-discipline. Quality education is critical to overcoming religious and ethnic biases as well as eliminating tensions and misunderstandings. The language used in the media and in schools has the capacity to generate wars if its message is divisive. Disseminating misconceptions, stereotypes and fallacies about other cultures and religions has resulted in lifelong enmities in some countries. Therefore, there is need to develop a curriculum that is sensitive to an all inclusive history, culture and religion so that children learn respect early in life.

"Cultures or religions are not in themselves causes of war or conflict, even if they have often been used as a pretext to stir up conflicts," noted Bokova. In order to harness effectively the power of education in the peace-building process, first of all, it is necessary to engage the parties in conflict in a process of reconciliation. Success in building peace must be firmly based upon the universal principles of respect for the dignity and the autonomy of every individual as well as upon a justice system that assures a safe educational environment, remembering that "peace is everyone's responsibility."

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