(HN, 9/24/12) - On the International Day of Peace on September 21, United Nations officials, experts and a movie star gathered at UN headquarters in New York City to propose pathways to lasting peace and tolerance, particularly in the wake of violence triggered by a critical video portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed.
Two afternoon panels, called a “high-level” debate on “Sustainable Peace for a Sustainable Future,” were hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
UNESCO Director-General and conference moderator Irina Bokova called for renewed commitment by all to respect, tolerance and mutual understanding. The UN agency has announced an International Decade of the Rapprochement of Cultures for 2013-2023.
In denouncing current incidences of bloodshed and unrest as “deplorable and unjustifiable,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the full-capacity room that “We cannot let the voices of extremists dominate the debate and inflame tensions. We need voices of moderation and solidarity, reason and respect – especially from religious and political leaders.”
“We must be relentless in standing for our values – peace, human rights and respect for all people,” he said.
The role of young people was emphasized. Earlier in the day at a youth assembly, the Secretary General Ban implored youth to “de-friend” -- borrowing a term from Facebook -- intolerance, and instead to use the hashtag “Represent Yourself” to tweet a message of peace and global understanding.
Former President of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández recommended that youth around the world participate in filmmaking, theatre, performing arts, sports, radio and television programs, oriented towards peace, non-violence and cultural diversity.
“How do you capture the mind of a 10-year old” about peace?” asked scholar and philanthropist Nasser David Khalili, Founder of the Khalili Collections of art and Chairman of the Maimonides Foundation which promotes peace and understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. An exercise he uses to teach tolerance asks groups to examine the skins of lemons, which are then placed back into a basket and mixed up. When asked to identify their own and unable to do so, the lesson becomes obvious that lemons, like human beings, are the same.
The media came under critical eye. While the UN Secretary General cited the importance of social media to promote dialogue and better communication, Fernández challenged new media to become either a "Brightnet.com" or "Darknet.com"
He described the choice as either serving hatred and insult to human dignity and cherished religious beliefs, as reflected in the recent circulation of the video about the Prophet Mohammed, or to become “the ideal catalyst for peace, knowledge, understanding, solidarity and pluralism in a new world order characterized for being borderless, wireless and interconnected.”
To accomplish this, Fernández recommended a new international legal approach to the use of cyberspace and global digital media, to “prohibit and punish blasphemy as the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence toward something considered sacred.” The new laws would be binding on UN member states.
That communication is key was underscored by Arjun Apparadurai, Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Communication is even more important, he said, than information, which is subject to mis-information. To be effective, communication must take into account the stark contrast between violence that spreads rapidly and virally, and peace that spreads slowly and gradually.
Several presenters cited the Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO, which declares that "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." The phrase is also engraved in 10 languages on the Tolerance Square Wall at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France.
Humorously noting gender bias in this phrase, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Lakshmi Puri made an impassioned appeal to recognize the role of women and girls as agents of sustainable peace in the context of the three pillars of the UN: social development; peace and security; and human rights.
Pointing out women’s capacity for love and talent for consensus-building, her recommendations included that women and girls be involved in peace negotiations, included in political participation, and afforded economic empowerment. Condemning all violence against women and girls, she pointed out that peace is not an absence of violence but zero tolerance of violence.
“Gender justice is a means and an end to sustainable peace,” Puri said.
Poverty was identified by several panelists as a major cause of violence. “Poverty and hunger make men fight,” explained Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Other causes of violence he cited include dictatorships; resources, whether available or lacking, and “rivalry of great powers.”
The newly elected President of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, H.E. Vuk Jeremić of Serbia, eloquently described personal distress over the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddha statues, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and symbol of peace. Condemning such violence as “ignorance at the root of intolerance,” he called for the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means and a “new type of humanism,” emphasizing the vital importance of education and culture as building blocks for peace as “the fabric of daily life.”
The role of religion was examined by Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1986 and member of the UNESCO High Panel on Peace and Dialogue among Cultures. Noting dramatically that “religion has been used as an enemy of humanity – in fact as a crime,” he called for a stop to such “infantile efforts” to sabotage rational discourse.
Darkhan Myngbay, Minister of Culture and Information of the Republic of Kazakhstan, affirmed his country’s support of UNESCO initiative for peace and non-violence.
Academy-award winning actor Forest Whitaker, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation, described his moving experience as an African American first visiting Africa.
“Being in Africa gave me a deep understanding of all humanity,” he said. “The connection amongst us all as crucial…We must always see the face of ourselves in others.” Healing comes from feeling peace within ourselves, he said.
Whitaker, who won an Academy Award for his 2006 portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film, The Last King of Scotland, launched a new humanitarian project in Uganda, as well as in South Sudan, through his new Peace Earth Foundation that focuses on peace-building and community empowerment in areas of conflict.
While he has appeared inn war-themed films, Oliver Stone's film Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam, the acclaimed actor emphasized his commitment to peace, evidenced in the International Institute for Peace which he co-founded. The Institute at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, now under the auspices of UNESCO, develops programs and partnerships about issues such as poverty reduction, community-building, climate change, and the important role of women and spiritual and religious leaders in peace-building. Whitaker’s commitment to combat youth violence was inspired by growing up in dangerous South Central, Los Angeles.
Solutions to violence posed by the panelists highlighted education. Other solutions, offered by Sachs, included the elimination of poverty and hunger, investing in development rather than the military, and term limits of leaders.
Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when a world war was averted, Sachs quoted U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s remarks about peace, that "So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.”
In the Q and A session, a 12-year boy from Lexington Massachusetts, attending the session with his mother, asked “What can I do to change the world?” Ms. Bokova’s answer punctuated the day’s events, as she advised, “Believe it and you can do it.”
--- Dr. Judy Kuriansky is the Main United Nations NGO Representative for the International Association of Applied Psychology and a member of HUM's Board of Advisors. A licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University Teachers College,she is world renowned as a humanitarian who has led workshops on peace, trauma recovery, crisis counseling and on her unique East/West intervention programs around the world, from Argentina to India, Singapore, the Czech Republic, Israel, the UAE, and Iran. She has worked in disaster relief and psychological first aid at Ground Zero after 9/11, after SARS in China, bombings in Jerusalem, earthquakes in Australia and Haiti, the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the tsunami/earthquake in Japan, information about which is on www.DrJudy.com. An award-winning journalist and accomplished author, she is a tireless advocate for media which sheds light.