Culture of peace - Plenary Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Published: 17 December 2012

ADVISER of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to the United Nations
Agenda item 15,
Plenary Session of the United Nations General Assembly
New York, 17 December 2012

Mr President,

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) welcomes the reports of the Secretary-General on intercultural and interreligious dialogue (A/67/283) and of the Director-General of UNESCO on the implementation of the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace (A/67/284), and the progress described in these reports.

The IFRC is strongly committed to fostering a global culture of respect for peace and non-violence, inter-cultural dialogue and social inclusion where human values and dignity are truly celebrated.  Indeed, promoting social inclusion and a culture of non-violence and peace is one of our three strategic aims for the present decade.

In this context, the IFRC has articulated the promotion of a culture of nonviolence and peace around three pillars: (i) non-discrimination and respect for diversity, (ii) violence prevention, mitigation and response, (iii) inter-cultural, inter-generational and inter-religious dialogue.

Mr President,

Violence exists in each corner of the world — in low, medium and high income countries, in urban slums, school classrooms, behind the locked doors of homes and institutions and through technology — and it can boil to a peak in disasters. Again and again in disasters the risk of self-directed and interpersonal violence — people hurting other people, or people hurting themselves — intensifies as fragile protective systems become strained or even collapse, stress levels soar, and people engage in harmful or exploitive behaviour.

Populations that already face the highest risks, such as children and women, become even more threatened. A woman is attacked at dusk as she seeks shelter in a crowded camp. A girl is forced to trade her body to feed her family. A boy is beaten, as others watch in silence, and then abandoned in a frightening and lonely environment. A gang steals from and threatens people in a shelter. A father loses his livelihood and unleashes his sense of shame and anger on his family. An elderly man’s despair leads him to take his own life. Stories like these are common in disasters; this is not acceptable.

Yet, for all the challenges, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is not without solutions. Violence, while complex and frustrating, is not inevitable. In fact, like the risk of other public health crises such as cholera, respiratory illnesses, measles, malaria and lack of nourishment that can escalate in disasters, self-directed and interpersonal violence can be contained, curbed and ultimately prevented. The ability of violence to thrive on ignorance, secrecy, denial and the chaos of disasters can be thwarted.

An IFRC report published this year jointly with the Canadian Red Cross on “Best Practices for Addressing Interpersonal and Self-Directed Violence During and After Disasters”, challenges all of us, and the humanitarian community in particular, to respond to this problem through early and proactive action, using a public health approach, incorporating gender and including children and youth in our approach..

We should ensure for instance that our own internal systems (policies, standard operating procedures, education and monitoring) are in place to create safe environments. We must also integrate the prevention of violence within Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (VCAs) to better understand the risks and strengths of communities in preparing for a disaster and to ensure the “do no harm” principle through addressing violence. Additionally, we must educate and support disaster responders of all levels and communities to be prepared to minimize the risk of violence and respond rapidly and effectively if it does occur.

While the International Federation has an essential role and many assets to tip the scales in favour of safety: our Fundamental Principles, dedicated local volunteers, networks of diverse partnerships including auxiliaries to government; today, all of us must acknowledge the predictable and preventable problem of violence in disasters, accelerate our action, and respond.

Mr. President,

The IFRC views education as a key tool to foster this individual, family, community and societal transformation towards building respect for diversity, nonviolence and social cohesion. As enshrined within International Human Rights Law, a major purpose of education is to promote a culture of nonviolence and peace at these different levels.

Regrettably, education fostering a culture of nonviolence and peace is not yet embedded in most national educational systems. When incorporated, it is often in post-conflict settings rather than serving a preventive, transformative role of society. Thus, this essential mission of education needs to be translated into action by policy and decision-makers, at international and national levels. Millennium Development Goals 2 and 3 aims at universal primary education and equal access of boys and girls, and by doing so focuses only on educational availability and accessibility. Echoing the second priority of the Secretary-General’s Education First Initiative on quality of learning, the IFRC calls upon policy and decision-makers to dedicate equal importance to the quality and acceptability of education in the post-MDGs reflections and policy dialogues.

We should focus also on both the content and process of education. Content wise, the (learning and teaching) curriculum needs to incorporate nurturing human values, fostering respect for diversity and non-violence. Process wise, the educational environment and process must be a microcosm of a culture of nonviolence and peace which education is to foster on a larger scale.

The motto adopted for IFRC 2020 is “saving lives, changing minds”. While we are well know for our work in saving lives in disasters situations, we count also on our 187 National Red Cross and Red  Crescent Societies to work at the community level to change mindsets. Changing minds is not only relevant but also critical to saving lives, to alleviate the suffering and to build resilience. We believe that tolerance, social inclusion and respect for diversity are important building blocks for a more resilient community.

This belief is translated into one of our IFRC’s flagship programs called: “Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change (YABC). It raises youth’s awareness and understanding of issues related to the promotion of a culture of non-violence and peace, such as non-discrimination and respect for diversity, violence prevention, inter-cultural dialogue, social inclusion, gender equality, the RCRC Fundamental Principles and IHL. YABC does not convey knowledge, or tell youth what to think. It encourages youth to change perspective, to realize that there is no 'black-and-white truth', to break conditioning transmitted through upbringing, education or media and to develop and act upon one's own position.

Lastly, youth are given a tool to support this change of perspective and inspire a culture of non-violence and peace around them, through the development of intra-personal and interpersonal skills to act constructively and interact harmoniously. Examples of such "soft" or "role-modelling" skills on which YABC focuses are: active listening; empathy; non-violent communication; critical thinking - dropping bias; non-judgment; collaborative negotiation and mediation, strengthening personal resilience (management of stress and emotions, resisting peer pressure), as well as operating from inner peace through relaxation and physical exercises.

Mr. President,

In conclusion, let me underscore that violence is predictable and preventable. Violence prevention is a moral and humanitarian imperative. And as such, it behooves all of us to garner all the human and financial resources at our disposal, and to commit them to the prevention of self-directed and interpersonal violence of all kinds. In the context of disasters, as I have shown today, concrete steps can be taken to prevent and minimize the occurrence of violence, specially towards our most vulnerable populations. Within our communities, and particularly with our youth, the role of education in changing minds, fostering tolerance, social inclusion and respect for diversity are important building blocks for a more resilient community.

Violence obsesses and consumes our world, and if we do not seek to prevent it, our future and the future of our children and grand children will be seriously jeopardized. Promoting a culture of non-violence and peace is needed because the human cost is too severe to bear. This cost manifests itself in stunned growth of children; in lives brutally snuffed out prematurely; in psychological damage that lasts a lifetime; in the physical pain of the countless millions who have been maimed; in the intergenerational transmission of violent tendencies; and finally in the financial burden imposed on families, hospitals, humanitarian agencies and governments. 

I thank you.