Report from the RPP Delegation: United Nations High Level Forum on the Culture of Peace

September 20, 2016
RPP Sends Student Delegation to the UN

On September 1, 2016, Jenna Alatriste, Tajay Bongsa, Gaby Chavez, Melissa Coles, Nestor Pimienta, and Sana Saeed represented Harvard Divinity School’s Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP) Initiative at the United Nations High Level Forum on the Culture of Peace, which was held at the UN Headquarters in New York City. The President of the 70th Session of the General Assembly, His Excellency Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, convened the forum, “recognizing the need for continual support to the further strengthening of the global movement to promote the Culture of Peace.” During the Forum, UN Member States, along with NGOs and interested civilians, had the opportunity to exchange ideas and ask questions about how the international community has, does, and should promote peace. We, the HDS RPP Delegation, attended the forum to learn about the UN’s promotion of a culture of peace, to identify future opportunities and ideas for RPP, and to spread the word about the RPP Initiative at HDS.

Delegates take a picture together

Upon arriving in New York City and claiming our badges for the Forum, we were approached and interviewed by a representative who was posting statements from the various civil society groups at the Forum. She asked what a culture of peace meant to us; Melissa replied that a Culture of Peace means both looking back to the past—to learn about earlier successes and failures—as well as looking to and reimagining the future.

We then met with Federica D’Alessandra, LLM, MA, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the UN representative for the Public International Law & Policy group, a non-governmental organization that advises on peace negotiation and war crimes prosecutions, who arranged our time at the UN. She escorted us on a tour through the UN until we reached the Trusteeship Council Chamber. It was here that our RPP Delegation, along with various other members of the civil society, NGO representatives, and UN delegates, gathered to discuss the necessity for a culture of peace in our world. 

The role of youth in the practice of peace was emphasized throughout the forum, something that we, as youth peace practitioners, found especially engrossing. Other areas of emphasis included the vital role of women and the need for peace to become truly a culture, a way of being. These and other themes were present in the words of H.E. Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, who opened the Forum by presenting the UN as a reflection of the world as it is and as we would like it to be. Thus, all of the diplomacy, dialogue, and work that occurred that day was a reflection of what is and what we intend to be.

with Federica D'Alessandra of the HKS Carr Center

With Federica D'Alessandra of the HKS Carr Center

Next, Secretary-General H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon’s representative read H.E. Mr. Ki-moon’s statement. He emphasized the immeasurable potential of young men and young women in the world. He said that young people must be a priority; we must invest in providing what they need to thrive. H.E. Mr. Ki-moon’s statement also promoted understanding, dialogue, and respect for human rights; prioritizing building a culture of peace; tying a culture of peace to the rule of law and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and our collective responsibility for generating a culture of peace.

The next speaker in this Opening Session was Ms. Ouided Bouchamaoui, Founder of The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet and 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Ms. Bouchamaoui was inspiring as she shared compelling truths, stories, and realities from her home in Tunisia and asked for continuing international efforts to combat the ongoing struggles for human rights and against terrorism. For a culture of peace to succeed in our world, Ms. Bouchamaoui shared that it must include: the rights of women; innovation and development; tolerance and freedom of thought; active engagement from civil society; action now against injustices; and a collective custodianship of the culture of peace.

After a musical interlude by Feifei Yang, Erhu virtuoso, and Jiaju Shen, Pipa virtuoso, the Morning Session continued with the Plenary Segment: statements by UN Member States. During this segment, each member state who wished to give a statement on the culture of peace was invited to do so, with each state receiving three minutes of speaking time. Over 40 of the 193 Member States, representing a diversity of peoples and cultures, read statements over the course of two and a half hours. The common themes and aspirations that arose were striking. These included: empowering women and youth; encouraging and continuing to spread a culture of peace; reflecting on how peace has spread in each country; the necessity of combating extremism around the world; respecting human rights; and working toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The close of the Plenary Segment also marked the beginning of a lunch break, during which our RPP Delegation had the opportunity to meet other civil society observers. We explained RPP to various interested parties and distributed RPP materials to them. The members of civil society in attendance represented a broad spectrum of interests, including advocates for particular areas where people are working for peace, for the rights of those with mental disabilities, for the environment, and for various religious groups, making for engaging conversation.

After the break, the afternoon session was structured around two panel discussions. We were able to sit on the floor with the diplomats during this session, a vantage point which broadened our perspective on the work of a UN diplomat. This also allowed us to distribute RPP materials to the diplomats, placing them at designated places on either side of the room.

RPP UN Delegation in Inner Chamber

The first panel was chaired and moderated by Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury of Bangladesh, Former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations, Chair of the UN General Assembly Drafting Committee for the Declaration and Programme of Action on Culture of Peace (1998-1999). The panel was titled: “Enhancing synergy between Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and eight action areas of the UN Programme of Action on Culture of Peace.” The panelists were: H.E. Mr. Masud Bin Momen, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN; Mr. Federico Mayor, former Director-General of UNESCO; H.E. Ms. Kunzang Choden Namgyel, Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations; Mr. David Nabarro, Special Advisor of the UNSG on 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; Ms. Barbara Marx Hubbard, Social Innovator, Head of Foundation for Conscious Evolution.

The panel on Sustainable Development Goals and the Culture of Peace highlighted many important points. A few that we found particularly relevant to RPP follow. H.E. Ms. Namgyel explained that “women by nature are principal elements of change,” so the government should actively target gender gaps. Mr. Nabarro highlighted that the UN Sustainable Development Goals are “a gift to the world, from world leaders,” “possibly the most precious gift” that world leaders could give. He also placed emphasis upon the fact that we “have to” take into account all elements of a strategy for the culture of peace now if we would like to see change and healing. This includes, for example, women, youth, climate change, the environment, and planning for the impact to last for seven generations.

After the close of the first panel and time for interactive discussion and remarks from the room, the second panel began promptly. This panel was titled: “The Role of Youth in advancing the Culture of Peace in the context of the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution on Youth, Peace and Security.” It was chaired and moderated by H.E. Ms. Katalin Annamaria Bogyay, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the UN. The panelists included: Mr. Ahmed Alhendawi, the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth; Dr. Franscisco Rojas Aravena, Rector of the University of Peace; Ms. Marie-Paule Roudil, Director of UNESCO Liaison Office in New York; Ms. Ingeborg Breines, Co-President, International Peace Bureau; Ms. Kazi Ateea and Mr. Nsilo Mavour, Youth leaders from Global Kids.

The discussion in this second panel was particularly relevant to RPP’s existence and goals, in that it addressed the role of children and youth in a culture of peace and the role of educational institutions in teaching peace. Mr. Alhendawi focused on the vicious cycle of false narratives and violence which captures young people, 600 million of whom live in conflict zones where a culture of peace is a rare commodity. Youth are born and/or forced into violence, and they are simultaneously blamed for the violence, blame which eventually is self-prophesying. The youth are a crucial part of the solution: when given the opportunity, they will choose peace over violence. However, without opportunity or hope, marginalized youth will continue to be recruited by radical groups who offer security through providing both high salaries and a sense of belonging. So, Mr. Alhendawi said, we should not ask “Why are they joining extremist groups?” but instead should ask “Why are we failing to get young people on the right track to begin with?” He ended his comments with a call to action: “I ask you all to not fail this generation of young people.”

The conversation then shifted to the necessity of teaching peace in our educational institutions. H.E. Ms. Bogyay asked the audience, “Why don’t schools teach peace?” War studies curriculums abound, she pointed out, but peace studies curriculums do not. The next few speakers focused on this topic, highlighting its central importance. Ms. Breines placed an economic focus on the issue, charging the world with inappropriately prioritizing use of its financial and intellectual resources. She laid out the numbers to show that if the world re-allocated just 10% of the amount spent on war each year, the impact would be significant. She ended her comments by referencing a stirring quote from Malala Yousafzai: “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”

The final speakers on this panel and for the day were Ms. Ateea and Mr. Mavour. They presented jointly. We wished that they could have instead been allowed to give two presentations with the full amount of time because their words were stirring and powerful. As the only actual youth on a panel about youth, their presence was vital, and they gave a call to action. This included them discussing: the power of perception which makes most youth think that they do not have a voice; how diplomacy and accountability need to come before secrecy; and some realities as young people in this world. They closed with the most powerful statement of the day: “Don’t fail us.”

H.E. Mr. Lykketoft then gave his concluding remarks and closed the Forum. Inspired by the Forum, especially its final panel on youth, we members of the RPP Delegation went to introduce ourselves to various speakers. We had an especially interesting discussion with H.E. Ms. Bogyay. We approached her and shared with her that, under the leadership of HDS Dean David N. Hempton, RPP is doing at Harvard University precisely the kind of peace work for which she called in her remarks. She was glad to hear about RPP’s efforts, and we both agreed on the vital importance of these types of peacebuilding programs for all age levels, from young children to adults. We return to HDS continuing to reflect upon H.E. Ms. Bogyay’s words and the vital role of programs such as RPP in developing and spreading the culture of peace now and in the future.   

With Ambassador Katalin Annamaria Bogyay of Hungary

with Ambassador Katalin Annamaria Bogyay of Hungary

We were able to meet and network with many other people, learning about their work and sharing RPP’s work and information. Another person with whom we were particularly excited to speak was Mr. Alhendawi. Inspired by his words, we asked Mr. Alhendawi about internship opportunities in his office at the UN, and he provided his personal contact information to follow up on the application process. Mr. Alhendawi’s remarks prompted us to think about how we can give hope to our fellow youth and help provide essential resources for their empowerment and success. These are questions we would like to pursue at HDS as we continue to participate in RPP.

Different countries’ approaches to peacebuilding are complex and nuanced. Our visit to the United Nations allowed us to see some ways in which theory is being implemented in diplomacy and in practice. We will continue to seek concrete solutions, however, as the forum in some areas left us with more questions than answers, which is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, we reflected upon the various formalities and protocols that might both hinder and aid peace processes across national borders.

We came to the Forum to learn about the UN’s promotion of a culture of peace, to identify future opportunities and ideas for RPP, and to spread the word about the RPP Initiative. We are happy to say that we accomplished all three, and we look forward to bringing our new knowledge, ideas, and questions to RPP discussions. We are thankful to Federica D’Alessandra, who made it possible for us to attend the forum. We are also thankful to RPP Research Associate Elizabeth Ruqaiyyah Lee-Hood and HDS Dean David N. Hempton for sending us as delegates and sponsoring the trip. Attending the United Nations High Level Forum on the Culture of Peace has inspired and challenged us, invigorating us as we continually work for peace in our world.

Submitted by: Melissa Coles, Master of Divinity (MDiv) 2017; Jenna Alatriste, MDiv 2018; Tajay Bongsa, Master of Theological Studies (MTS) 2016; Gaby Chavez, MDiv 2017; Nestor Pimienta, MDiv 2017; and Sana Saeed, MDiv 2018

Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP), Harvard Divinity School

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