Forest Whitaker : Reflections on UNESCO's 70th Anniversary

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Forest Whitaker
18 November 2015

By FOREST WHITAKER, UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation 

Women and men around the world remain shocked and saddened by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. This tragic loss of life was perpetrated by hateful individuals who ascribe to a close-minded ideology that rejects diversity in any form. The intent of these actions was to divide us, to make us view the world from these extremists’ perspective as “us” versus “the others.” Instead, this tragedy has brought us closer together. The outpouring of support for the victims that has come universally from leaders and citizens in every nation of the world—from the Americas to Africa to the Middle East to East Asia—shows that people across continents and cultures stand in solidarity, united by our commitment to peace and tolerance.

On November 16, 1945—exactly 70 years ago this week—UNESCO was founded with the explicit purpose of advancing this same principle, of bringing people together across cultures. UNESCO’s constitution rightly notes that “ignorance of each other’s ways and lives” has so often, throughout human history, been a source of conflict and that, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” For the past seven decades, UNESCO has devoted itself to fostering mutual respect and encouraging an active international exchange of culture and ideas.

It has been my privilege to work with UNESCO these past few years to help facilitate these cultural and intellectual exchanges between people of all backgrounds and to collaborate with youths around the world to solidify in the minds of men—and women—the defenses of peace. This work has allowed me to witness some of the extraordinary progress that we as an international community have made over the last 70 years. In our daily lives, we routinely interact with and depend on people from different countries and cultures in a way that the founders of UNESCO could not have imagined. I believe they would view this openness and willingness to cooperate across languages, cultures, races, and nationalities with pride and approval. On the whole, we are becoming a more tolerant world, one that is increasingly eager to embrace our differences.

As we observe the 70th anniversary of UNESCO’s founding, it is important to recognize this progress. But it is equally essential, especially in light of the recent tragedies, to acknowledge the significant work that remains. In 1995, in commemoration of its 50th anniversary, UNESCO declared November 16 to be the International Day of Tolerance, a day on which the world would come together every year to recommit itself to promoting tolerance, education, and understanding.

So I hope that we also reflect this week on what can be done to make our world a more tolerant place. Because, while countries and economies around the world become more interdependent with each passing day, some men and women, mired in cycles of extreme poverty and conflict, are being left behind. And, although the world on the whole may be more tolerant today than it was several decades ago, there remain stubborn contingents in almost all nations that still espouse explicit and implicit racism, xenophobia, and extremism. Devotion to tolerance, and to UNESCO’s founding principles, requires that we treat violence, poverty, or intolerance anywhere as a threat to peace everywhere.

We can all participate in this process. Too often, we view tolerance as an abstract concept that comes to bear only on issues of race, culture, or diversity. In fact, tolerance is a frame of mind that can positively shape all of our social interactions. Tolerance, at its core, is a willingness to listen. It is a rejection of the notion that we are always right in favor of the view that other people can contribute to our understanding of the world. My hope is that good women and men from all nations continue to strive every day to become more open-minded and more willing to learn from the people around them.

May those who lost their lives in recent attacks rest in peace, and may we all honor their legacy by working together to further the progress of the last 70 years and create a world of peace and tolerance that all citizens of the globe will share.

Forest Whitaker

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About The Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative

The Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) is a non-governmental organization with an international scope and reach, founded by social activist and UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, Forest Whitaker in 2012. WPDI develops an array of peace-building programs, initiatives and campaigns to foster peace and reconciliation in disadvantaged and fragile communities in the different regions of the world, including Africa, Latin America and the United States. WPDI seeks to bring good men and women together and to empower them to become peace leaders and agents of positive transformations in their countries and communities. We believe that young people, so often recruited to perpetuate destructive cycles of violence, have the passion and creativity to lead their communities down a different path, one of peace and sustainable development.

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