When the U.N. Peace Bell rang across the street from the United Methodist-related Church Center for the United Nations, those gathered in the center’s chapel rang their own small bells in response.
Video clips of people ringing bells from the Philippines to the Democratic Republic of Congo followed, along with messages of peace. One video message from an Iraqi woman pleaded for urgent international action for those suffering in her country. “Let’s build up peace in Iraq that will enhance world peace,” she said.
The U.N. General Assembly has declared the International Day of Peace, celebrated on or near Sept. 21, “to be a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.”
To mark the day, United Methodist Women and other religious and nongovernmental groups organized a symposium, “The Things That Make for Peace.”
Morning speakers and afternoon workshops focused on the intersection of basic needs — food, water, and health — with issues of gender, climate insecurity and conflict.
“Today, we’re emphasizing the inextricable links of peace and just development,” said Harriett Jane Olson, top executive of United Methodist Women. “We will share and examine what are those things that make for peace, real peace, peace that can last.”
Growing out of conflict
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, top executive of the World YWCA and moderator for the morning event, grew up in rural Zimbabwe during the war. “I am a daughter of conflict,” she said. “I know what it means.”
She also recognizes what can help end such conflict. “I lead a global market of 25 million women and girls,” she explained. “Their everyday work is one of the things that make peace happen.”
Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, had just returned from a visit to Lebanon, where the spill-over effects of conflict are threatening to engulf that small country.
Currently, Lebanon’s population of under 4.5 million is hosting just under 1.2 million refugees. “Per capita, it hosts far more refugees than any other country in the world,” Clark noted. “And there are huge concerns there over whether the country’s stability will hold with the Syria conflict continuing and spilling over into Lebanon itself.
“We see, as you do, peace and stability as a prerequisite for human development,” she said. “We see these conflicts taking scarce resources away from development and costing developing countries hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”
Women and girls also are bearing the costs of conflict, said Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director for UN Women.
“Women continue to be disproportionately affected by conflict situations and are often excluded from development planning… despite the fact that women head, on an average, 40 percent of households in post-conflict settings,” she said.
Women’s knowledge, wisdom and commitment to future generations, Puri pointed out, is what “makes them such critical peacemakers and peacebuilders, but also conflict preventers.”
Week of action in New York
The symposium marks the beginning of a week of action before the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s 69th Session, including the Peoples Climate March Sept. 21, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Sept. 22-23, and the U.N. Climate Summit, Sept. 23.
“Everything discussed there will have a bearing on whether our world is capable of building a peaceful, equitable and just future,” Clark said.
But Bill McKibben, a United Methodist and well-known activist from Middlebury, Vermont, calls next week’s gathering of world leaders “the sideshow to the main event.”
More important, he told symposium participants, was Sunday’s climate march in midtown Manhattan. “It’s going to be by far the largest demonstration about climate change the world has ever seen,” he said. “It’s going to be filled, among other things, with people of faith.”
McKibben, whose 350.org movement is one of the march’s organizers, said that a video message from former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a call from Cardinal Timothy Dolan for area Catholics to join the march shows “a spirit moving and it is beautiful to see.”