In our Peace and Security workshop for the UN75 festival in October 2020, we used the UN Culture of Peace Initiative as our platform. I presented questions relating to ‘tolerance and solidarity’, one of the eight essential elements in the UN Culture of Peace Initiative. Like other presenters, I was charged to pose the audience an ‘impossible choice’ with both options being unequivocally desirable. So how might they vote?
I recalled that those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war. We are facing only one of these but still need to act in that same sense of solidarity for, as we look around, far too little assistance has been extended to countries with the fewest capacities to face the pandemic challenge.
People ask why Tolerance is included in the UN’s Culture of Peace Initiative. After all, it is not a challenging word, not the word we would pin on a flag as we storm the ramparts of prejudice. When the concept of the Culture of Peace was being hammered out in UNESCO, we should note that in 1984, Ronald Reagan had pulled the US out of UNESCO and the following year Margaret Thatcher did likewise. Their reasoning, influenced by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing US think tank, was that UNESCO was seeking to control the media. In fact, that was a proposal put forward by the then East Germany, but which did not even reach general debate.
With the US and UK no longer members, the balance of Anglophone and Francophone thinking in UNESCO tipped towards French concepts and interpretations. In 1995, UNESCO launched the International Year for Tolerance, asking all UN member states, UNESCO members or not, to promote its ideals.
Those of us in the UK advocating its return to UNESCO membership - we were back in 1997 - were puzzled. How could we promote a campaign for an attitude which can best be described as sufferance or liberality, at best neutral? But when we learned that in French the word tolerance has a more dynamic meaning, implying curiosity in the other, a wish to understand the other side of the argument and that only then could we manifest tolerance, it all made sense! We knew exactly which communities we should target, those who suffered that fuzzy anglophone type of tolerance but who needed the francophone type! Some years earlier, at the UK launch of the UN International Year of Disabled Persons, we had watched open-jawed as all pressure groups talked about their challenges, but none would listen to each other. In time they learned. So, for the International Year of Tolerance, we brought together those representing the deaf, blind, physically, and mentally handicapped, and those campaigning on gender and sexuality platforms, encouraging them to share how they overcame those challenges. All admitted they had not listened to each other’s challenges all those years back but now quickly joined a supervisory group to take the new Year of Tolerance forward.
The first proposal was that negotiators, international and inter-personal, must be encouraged to show evidence of their understanding of each other’s position, and to share publicly that evidence.
With regards to Solidarity, COVID-19 has forced us to step up and show it – and share!
We have seen how cautiously countries approached the decision on whether to endorse the international COVAX programme, sharing research, sharing vaccines and treatment with nations and their peoples. As the UN Secretary-General said in his address on 21 September, “The dangers of ‘vaccinationalism’ is not only unfair, but also self-defeating. None of us is safe, until all of us are safe.” The UK has joined COVAX; it took its time but now 172 countries have shown solidarity and joined.
But let us not overlook what we can do on a personal level, for instance, Black Lives Matter. Would we be taking it as seriously had not images of George Floyd gone round the world? Those who watch Premier League matches must hail the determination of its leading players to honour this commitment. Will we stick with this new realisation, recognising we have turned a blind eye to this over these last decades? The International Year for Disabled Persons I mentioned earlier was quickly seen as offering inadequate time for the world to be mobilised and was immediately followed by a Decade. And still the job’s not done but even so, legislation is sufficiently embedded.
So, who are we showing solidarity with, for how long and how do we measure outcomes?
Last month, in Ethiopia ten Amhara and Oromo political parties signed an interim agreement on joint political positions in Addis Ababa. The interim agreement marked an historic milestone in the relations of the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia and issued a strong call for de-escalation of tensions and for reconciliation. And yet, a month later, the Tigray community is at war with the Ethiopian government and all previous sense of solidarity has been tragically lost.
In Cyprus, study visits are designed in a way to provide students with an opportunity to collaborate with each other and integrate new perspectives with cultural heritage environments to enhance learning initiatives. This sounds good but what have they been doing over these 30 years and why are today’s 50-year olds not showing tolerance? In Bosnia, neighbouring schools separated by faith play basketball against each other – but only once a year. That is not good enough, but we must be persistent, ‘tie ourselves to the mast’, commit as did the founders of the United Nations.
Therefore, my second proposal was to challenge the audience to commit to Black Lives Matter, recognising it to be a milestone albeit an important one on the route to true international and interpersonal solidarity and to rejoice that we have the opportunity to play a part in it – and to do so.
By a smallish margin, the audience voted for the first proposal.