In times of crisis, positive peace must address systemic inequalities
Peace is not just the absence of conflict. Positive peace is the presence of justice, equity and equality for all in our society, a lasting peace that addresses social and economic disparities and in turn the conflicts and violence associated with exploitation and inequality.
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the inequity and inequality that already existed before the pandemic and exposed weaknesses in societies across the Asia-Pacific. It is indisputable that the most vulnerable among us have been hardest hit, because of unequal access to health care and public health information, income-earning opportunities and learning resources, and also the fragile economic and social situations of people on the margins.
This has very real impacts on our societies as a whole. Millions of learners, with an unequal impact on girls and women, have had their education disrupted because of the pandemic are at risk of never returning to school, with lifelong consequences for their own opportunities and also for their societies. Many more low-income families, including refugees and migrants, have lost their livelihoods, while at the same time facing the public crisis. We know that children who have been displaced from school face greater dangers of exploitation and domestic violence. For LGBTI people, indigenous communities, youth and many other vulnerable groups, the perils of the pandemic are compounded by pre-existing inequalities.
COVID-19 has also made it starkly clear that we are all in this together. The overall resilience of countries and communities integrally and interconnectedly depends on the welfare of the most vulnerable.
For all of the challenges posed by the pandemic, however, we also can see an opportunity to address and rebuild our relationship with the nature that promotes harmony between people and our planet. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has outlined the global UN response working with Member States and civil society to “build back better”, with a particular emphasis on addressing the climate crisis that is the long-term context for our present situation, and is already have visible effects from melting glaciers to rampant wildfires.
The UN response involves every agency not only to combat the pandemic and lead public health efforts, but also to advise and support on economic stimulus and social protection programmes. At UNESCO Regional Bureau of Education in Asia and Pacific, we believe that quality and inclusive education is absolutely critical to move towards a peaceful and sustainable future in the region. At these times of crisis, we must have eyes on inventing mid-tem and long-term solutions for our future generations to equally enjoy living together between themselves and with nature in societies with positive peace.
The Together for Peace (T4P) initiative launched virtually this week brings together Member States from across the region to work towards positive within and between countries and communities. The initiative is integral to the mandate of UNESCO, which was founded after World War II with the famous preamble of its constitution that since wars begin in the minds of men and women, it is in the minds of men and women that the defences of peace must be constructed.
All of our work towards positive peace, however, depends on partnerships with government, civil society and members of the public. History has taught us that political and economic arrangements between governments are not enough to ensure sustainable and enduring peace. The support and solidarity from people coming from every segment of our societies is the only guarantee.
We know we face considerable challenges in achieving that goal and building understanding and empathy between peoples. There are continuing conflicts within and between countries in the region, while narrow nationalistic narratives and disinformation continue to foster prejudice and misunderstanding. The inequalities separating people in our societies have often been widened by the pandemic. And the monumental test to mitigate the climate crisis once again will impact the most vulnerable groups first, although clearly it is a challenge that affects us all.
Translating the principles of positive peace, which we can all agree on, into tangible facts on the ground requires input and partnerships between governments, but just as important we need buy in from members of the public and a commitment to better understand each other, celebrating our differences as well as our shared humanity. Education including social and emotional learning is critical – we literally learn how to care about each other.
There are common themes in schools that can lay the foundations for that understanding, although each must be implemented in a culturally appropriate context. We need to teach at an early age and consistently about building just, ethical and sustainable relationships between humanity and nature. In the Asia-Pacific, this incredibly and beautifully varied region, we all need to learn to live well in the context of super diversity. As an interlinking component, we need to design education systems that inculcate a culture of peace.
We are clear-eyed about the scope of the task ahead of us. Prior to the pandemic, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific concluded that the region was already falling behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in terms of the climate crisis and environmental targets. As societies weather and recover from the pandemic, we must rebuild from more sustainable and equitable foundations that brings us all together for resilient positive peace.
By Shigeru Aoyagi, the Director of UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific
* This article was first published in The Bangkok Post