A Blog Post by Forest Whitaker on the International Day of Peace

In 2021, the world remains caught under the weight of COVID 19. The pandemic has tested our capacity to address global challenges: it created unprecedented risks to our health, and it has also revealed and increased inequalities within and across nations all over the world, especially focused on economic, racial, and gender-based issues. If we want to not only recover, but progress — and transform our communities into places that are more fair, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable – now is the time to help one another by acting both creatively and collectively.

Inequalities fracture our ability to think and act as one humanity. This is concerning, especially as the most recent report from the IPCC laid bare the problems that insufficient efforts at addressing our climate will pose for both the current and next generations. Conflict also continues to dampen hopes across vast demographics. Today, 600 million young people live in areas affected by armed conflict and violence. If we abandon them to their status quo, these youths will remain unaware of global challenges. They will be more likely to fall victim to criminal organizations, street gangs, or radical groups, replicating, or even amplifying, the patterns that shaped their fates in the first place.

So, it’s hardly surprising that nearly all the conflicts that make the news today have decades of social exclusion and endemic violence at their core. South Sudan, for instance, has spent over 40 years across the past six decades embroiled in civil conflict or war. Recently, we all focused our attention on Afghanistan, which was already in a state of civil war when the Soviet Union invaded it in 1979 and remains fraught today after NATO’s armies ended their missions and departed. In other places, like the Sahel region of Africa, conflicts that seemingly started a decade ago actually had roots in the historic marginalization of whole populations; their youth were disenfranchised and joined violent groups that lured them with the promise of better, more meaningful lives. As we’ve seen across the world, vulnerable children and youths are the linchpin of chronic conflict and violence.

And yet, children and youths from conflict and violence affected areas are no different from those from any other background: they have a capacity for hope and resilience that, when nurtured, can transform whole communities from within. Through the humanitarian work of my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), I have the privilege to regularly meet such young women and men whose passion for improving the lives of their communities is an example that can be applied universally. I see them as troops of peace, the foot soldiers of positive transformation. Adapting to local realities, we operate in varied environments in countries as diverse as South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Mexico, and the United States, with one shared goal: providing young people and other individuals with tools and resources that they can feel they own, and then use to make a difference. Depending on their context, they will mediate conflicts among their peers at schools; they will go into villages to address land conflicts; they will create social businesses that provide services and jobs and help the environment; they will assist local populations in times of emergency, as they did last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There is no silver bullet to solve all the issues we face today, but WPDI’s participants have shown me that every person can and should be empowered to play a role in the fate of her or his community. For social change to work effectively, it cannot solely be imposed from an outside source. “Outside” can mean many things: it can refer to a foreign entity, like an army or an NGO, but it can also characterize the way national leaders make decisions with no regard for people residing in remote areas of their countries. However, there can be no genuine peace if it is not embraced by the people living at the most local level. This is aptly captured in the Constitution of UNESCO, which recognizes that: “a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world.” Peace can never boil down to a top-down process engineered by officials, be they politicians, diplomats, or soldiers. It must meet the aspirations that stem from the grassroots; it must also be a bottom-up movement, involving even the most seemingly vulnerable people.

On the International Day of Peace 2021, we should reflect on how to create unanimous, lasting, and sincere support for inclusive peace as the cement that will allow humanity to tackle the immense challenges of both our present and coming times.

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