Peace Education and UNESCO

Dr. Linda King

Director a.i. Division for the Promotion of Basic Education and Chief of the Section for Rights and Values in Education;  UNESCO, Paris

(Welcome letter: Issue #64 – April-June 2009)  

Thank you for inviting me to write the welcome letter for the newsletter of the Global Campaign for Peace Education. It is May in Paris, the sun is shining, finally, and on the surface, at any rate, the leafy boulevards of Paris seventh arrondissement, where the Headquarters of UNESCO are located, seem far removed from the troubled conflict zones of the world. Old ladies walk their little dogs, children cycle on the sidewalk, groups of men play bowls, couples stroll and embrace. On any working day at the newly renovated buildings in the Place Fontenoy on the left bank of Paris where I work, exhibitions are opened, gala receptions are held, conferences and expert working groups convened, and major international reports and publications formally launched. Yet not so long ago, and certainly in the lifetime of many still walking the streets of Paris, the city was witness to invasion and occupation by a fascist regime. Innocent civilians were deported by virtue of their religious beliefs, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or political affiliation. During the Occupation, many thousands of men and women were forcibly removed from their homes and communities to face certain humiliation and suffering, and often death, in the concentration camps. Looking out of my office window at the Eiffel Tower, that supreme symbol of French identity and ingenuity, it is hard to imagine, as the tourists swarm in their hundreds like ants around an anthill, that the swastika once briefly flew from the top. Cruise along the Seine on a warm summer evening marvelling at the beauty of the buildings that line the river and the Memorial of the Deported Martyrs just across the river from Notre Dame on the Ile de Cite provides us with a stark reminder.  For if the lives of those killed on the battlefields around the world or of the civilians whose families are destroyed in the process of war, are to mean anything we must remember that war is still with us even though we may be inclined to forget as we go about our daily lives.

UNESCO was created in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War with the aim “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world without distinction of race, sex, language or religion”(UNESCO Constitution 1946).  And two years later the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reiterated this role according education a central function in the promotion and diffusion of human rights principles, the cornerstone for peace.

In December last year we commemorated the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The date was marked around the world in different ways but in UNESCO Headquarters we held a series of events around the way in which education contributes to the furthering of respect, tolerance and understanding through the implementation of the Declaration’s central premise namely that education “shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”(Article 26 para 2). A major exhibition by  50 member states showcased their learning materials and textbooks on the subject of peace, citizenship and learning to live together. The exhibition featured a range of learning sources: from sophisticated interactive materials, videos and CD ROMs used in schools in the industrialized North, to handmade materials and models from the poorest corners of the world. A series of Round Tables were held examining different aspects of human rights education from policy formulation to research and implementation. And significantly a street exhibition on the railings of the UNESCO building along Avenue Suffren the main boulevard which leads towards the Eiffel Tower featured sixty years of work by artists and photographers working for the cause of peace, understanding and tolerance throughout the world. In a city where once the flag of the Nazis had been a symbol of oppression and terror, images of peace and human rights had regained their rightful public place.