During Liberia’s civil war, Christian and Muslim women learned how to work together to build a “culture of peace” that helped end the war in 2003.
Leymah Gbowee, awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for leading that nonviolent movement, believes this effort must be replicated elsewhere.
In a Sept. 9 keynote speech during the United Nations High Level Forum on The Culture of Peace, she briefly chronicled what it took to form a peace-seeking consortium that included women of different religious and ethnic groups and varying income levels.
Organized in cooperation with The Global Movement for The Culture of Peace, the forum marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace by the U.N. General Assembly.
The declaration calls upon all governments and all peoples to strive for a more peaceful world through “a positive, dynamic participatory process where dialogue is encouraged and conflicts are solved in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation.”
In Liberia, the consortium “spent many days negotiating with each other to resolve our own conflicts,” said Gbowee, a Lutheran and author of the memoir, “Mighty Be Our Powers.” But then, she added, they engaged in strategic planning for hours every day.
That struggle, she said, “inadvertently” followed Article 1 of the Culture of Peace declaration: “Through education, dialogue and cooperation, we fostered an environment conducive to peace.”
Peace cannot be negotiated by men with guns, she argued. “Nothing guarantees that a man’s gun and the size of his arsenal gives him high intellect to sit at the peace table,” Gbowee declared.
Women, on the other hand, “have proven time and time again that we can do it right when everyone else misses the mark.”
Values, not weapons
In his opening remarks to the forum, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that achieving peace means more than ending armed conflict. “Peace is a mode of behavior,” he said, and humanity’s strongest assets are shared values, not weapons.
“We are many cultures but we are a single family bound by a respect for human rights and dignity for all,” the secretary general said.
During the event, representatives spoke briefly for delegations from a number of member states, focusing on the need for tolerance, equality, respect, understanding, democratic participation, education and sustainable economic and social development.
“Almost always, the lack of basic needs leads to the destruction of peace,” the Sri Lanka representative pointed out.
The representative from Kazakstan stressed that an emphasis on socialization and values for youth is vital for national development, a priority reinforced in a panel discussion on “The Role and Contributions of Women and Youth to The Culture of Peace.”
Ahmed Alhendawi, the U.N. Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, noted that while young people are disproportionately affected by conflict, they are rarely invited to participate in peace negotiations.
Providing youth with a sense of accountability and ownership in bringing peace could ensure that having the world’s largest generation ever of young people “is the opportunity, not the liability, of our time.”
Oliver Rizzi Carlson, a U.N. representative from the United Network of Young Peacebuilders, said young people are eager for that opportunity. “We’re used to talking about peace in terms of results,” he added. “The trick is (that) peace is about the process. Youth know this.”
Sitting at the peace table
Women, who often work for peace under threatening conditions, also need to be more prominent in peace talks, said Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network, echoing Gbowee’s call.
“Women’s movements don’t resort to violence to attain their goals,” she explained. “They have other creative solutions. They need to bring those solutions to the peace table.”
Commitments to achieving a Culture of Peace also need to be well-funded, argued Kathleen Kuehnast from the U.S. Institute for Peace.
“What we need is a Silicon Valley for nonviolent approaches to global problem-solving,” she said.