During his tenure as the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury undertook a pioneering initiative on the Culture of Peace and chaired the nine-month-long negotiations that resulted in the adoption by the UN General Assembly in September 1999 of the landmark Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace. His proposal supported by a good number of countries the previous year led to the declaration by the United Nations of the International Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World (2001–2010). As Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations, he endeavored to build the culture of peace within the least developed and most vulnerable countries, many of which remain conflict-ridden.
In his inaugural lecture, Ambassador Chowdhury emphasizes his conviction that “the young people are and should be the core of the Global Movement for the Culture of Peace.” Underscoring the first of the eight action areas articulated by the 1999 United Nations Programme of Action, “Fostering a culture of peace through education,” he emphasizes that students “want to reach out to people, they want to know about other parts of the world, their religions, their societies, their countries,” and that we need to work now to foster that rather than let prejudice creep in. He also issues a call to action: “Worldwide, globally, there are many groups; some big, mostly small, even individuals working diligently for building the Culture of Peace. I believe that if we can create a network to connect all these dots, dots representing hundreds of such organizations, hundreds of individuals, that way we empower them in a big way and enhance the Global Movement for the Culture of Peace.”
Ambassador Chowdhury is the recipient of the U Thant Peace Award and the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal for Culture of Peace as well as an Honorary Doctorate from the Soka University of Japan.
This is a special honor for me to be invited to be the first speaker in the Distinguished Speaker Series on the Culture of Peace, particularly because this series is intended to carry forward the message of peace through generations. I believe the Culture of Peace transcends boundaries. It transcends differences in age, and it transcends differences in culture. It is the most universal thing that you can have.
I am very proud that the SGI-USA has thought of this lecture series. I believe this initiative will become a very important landmark in the history of the SGI-USA ushering in a memorable series of events. I can tell you that the initiative that you have taken today with this type of lecture series will go far beyond just being a number of lectures. It will transform individuals — it will transform all of us individually and collectively. This lecture series will be making that contribution not only in this city but also in the other parts of the international community.
I thank all of you individually – all of you who have come to this lecture – because you have made the beginning of your own contribution to a global movement for the Culture of Peace.
I worked for a decade for the United Nations and as an Ambassador for Bangladesh, but this mention of the decade has a different significance for me. It was on 31 July 1997 that I wrote to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, at that time Kofi Annan, as the Bangladesh Ambassador, asking him to circulate my request for a separate agenda item on the Culture of Peace for the Plenary sessions of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Since then, it has been nearly ten years, just fifteen days short. That very letter has mushroomed in a big way to this global movement for the Culture of Peace.
The subject matter under the euphemism “Towards a culture of peace” was debated for a number of years before it became a separate agenda item of the UNGA in 1997. The Secretary-General was asked to present a draft program of action, which, after long negotiations for nine months, was adopted in September 1999. Earlier in 1997, the UNGA adopted another resolution declaring the year 2000, the millennium year, as the International Year for the Culture of Peace. The next year, the United Nations adopted a very significant and promising resolution to declare the years 2001 to 2010 as the International Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World. I believe that during these last ten years, from July 1997 to this day, the international community has reached a point where we can surely call it a Global Movement for the Culture of Peace.
For that, all of you deserve a big “thank you” as well!
My heartfelt, sincere thanks to the SGI in particular for giving this special profile to the movement for the Culture of Peace. I think humanity and the world as a whole owe you a great deal in championing this cause. So, thank you very much! As I am one of the citizens of the world, I believe I can thank you on behalf of the rest of humanity.
Peace is integral to human existence — in everything we do, in everything we say and in every thought we have, there is a place for peace. Absence of peace makes our challenges, our struggles, much more difficult. I believe that is why it is very important that we need to keep our focus on creating the Culture of Peace in our lives.
Sometimes we see peace as the opposite of war. That is not at all what the Culture of Peace would mean. Absence of war or absence of violence is not peace. It may bring cessation of hostilities, but it is obviously not peace in its totality – for sure it is not sustainable peace. That is why I believe that the Culture of Peace is essential in our lives for many reasons, and I will come to that a little bit later, but the most important thing to realize is that the absence of peace takes away the opportunities that we need to better ourselves, to prepare ourselves, to empower ourselves to face the challenges of the world. Absence of peace takes away that opportunity and that is why peace is essential in our lives.
I have, for many years, and for the last five years with a specific UN responsibility, spoken up for the most vulnerable countries of the world – the impoverished, the poorest and the weakest countries of the world. Advocating for these countries, I found that absence of peace or recurring conflicts cost them so much, particularly in terms of their human development prospects. I will just tell you that in the year 2000, the cost of conflict was measured by the Carnegie Foundation to be $200 billion for the poorest countries of the world. That cost in the year 2000 was ten times more than the official development assistance that these countries received at that time. What a waste! That is why I strongly believe that peace and development are two sides of the same coin. One is meaningless without the other; one cannot be achieved without the other.
When we talk of peace being integral to human existence, we also have to bear in mind that, as the UNESCO Constitution pronounced, it is in the minds of men we have to build the defenses of peace, because it is in the minds of men that the seeds of war germinate. That is a crucially important thing that we need to keep in mind.
The quest for peace is as old as human history. The prehistoric cave man was also looking for peace, and we are here today talking about peace, trying to see how best to achieve an enduring Culture of Peace. I say that it is the longest human endeavor or quest going on, but it runs alongside many of the things that we do on a daily basis.
Do not isolate peace as something separate. It is part of our very existence. Anything that we do or say or how we interact with one another is very important. We should know how to relate to one another without being angry, without being violent, without being disrespectful, without neglect, without prejudice. Once we are able to do that, we are able to take the next step forward in advancing the Global Movement for the Culture of Peace. Start with yourself!
We need to do that, but at the same time, I must say that we are lucky that we have a global body, an international institution, a universal organization – the United Nations, that is dedicated to the cause of peace. The United Nations is working to bring development as the other side of the peace efforts in the world.
The contribution of the United Nations sometimes is also seen as something that is universally applicable. It is as if a big organization is moving in to create something called “peace”. However, remember, that the work of the United Nations is also to empower people to talk about peace. We at the United Nations devise, arrange or work with people to empower individuals, and that is very important. Therefore, while there are efforts to bring peace in a conflict situation, we must also try to empower people.
This empowerment comes from participation, particularly from democratic participation. I think that is why one of the eight areas of the Culture of Peace Programme of Action is democratic participation. This is very important in the lives of people, in the lives of nations that there should be a participatory democracy encouraging an environment to create the Culture of Peace. I would like to emphasize that dimension of our efforts to build the Culture of Peace.
In this context, I should mention here — and this is a message to the organizers here —that the 21st of September every year is observed as the International Day of Peace. The United Nations observes it every year, and I would like you – in your own ways, in your communities, in your workplace, in your schools, in your neighborhood activities – to please observe 21 September as the International Day of Peace. Try to do something to talk about the Culture of Peace, to do something that contributes to it. That will generate interest, and the impact can be enormous. I am requesting all of you to go to the United Nations and other peace websites and find out about the International Day of Peace. I am honored to inform you that earlier this month I was designated to be the honorary chair of the International Day of Peace NGO Committee.
I would like to tell the United Nations that the International Day of Peace is not just a UN resolution, or a little message here or there, or a token celebration. That is not the type of International Day of Peace that we are thinking of. I am going to create some benchmarks for the United Nations, for its Secretary-General and others to report how many times the senior officials of the UN spoke about the Culture of Peace in their statements and speeches; how many times they involved young people in promoting the Culture of Peace; how many times the special representatives of the Secretary-General articulated the Culture of Peace in the undertaking of their responsibilities. We have to create such benchmarks to ensure that there is accountability. We talk about the accountability of other peoples, other nations, but we need to make the United Nations also accountable for peace. This will be our role during the International Decade for the Culture of Peace. You know, we are reaching 2010, the final year of the Decade, very fast. What have we done to promote – globally and nationally – the Culture of Peace?
I am very happy that this Culture of Peace Distinguished Speaker Series is being launched here today as we are in the final run up to the Decade. I hope it will help others to know that, yes, through this evening’s launch we are making our best efforts to contribute to the Decade. So again, my tribute to the SGI for starting this initiative.
We need to really build up a momentum so that by the time we reach 2010, there is a global awareness about what we need to do to build the Culture of Peace. Again, for that I come back to you repeatedly to see what we can do to promote an effective observance of the International Decade for the Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World, that will leave its mark in the communities and nations of the world.
I keep saying that the young people are and should be the core of this Global Movement for the Culture of Peace. The reason I say this is because I have seen time and again that the young people who are in schools, colleges and universities have the most open minds. They want to reach out to other people, they want to know about other parts of the world, their religions, their societies, their countries. But, the pressures of their subsequent professional careers create a situation that brings in the prejudices, that brings in the indifferences, that brings in the intolerance of other people.
Why does this have to happen, when as young people you have the broadest of minds? You are all embracing, but when you get into your professional life, when you get into your adult family lives, somehow these prejudices creep in. That question bothers me all the time. That is why I believe it is necessary that we build the Culture of Peace in the minds of young people, so that when they grow up, it will stay with them always whatever their profession will be, whatever their way of life will be. We have to empower them in a manner that it stays with them. It should not be a transient thing with them. That is why I believe that this initiative that the SGI has taken to get young people motivated is very important. I am impressed by the logo of this lecture series showing the exuberant, empowered young people. That is what they should be.
When speaking about the Culture of Peace, I often mention an incident during my visit to Kosovo in 2000. As you know, the two communities there – the Albanians and the Serbs – had been antagonistic to each other for decades, and they reached a very bloody point in 1997, 1998 and 1999. This was immediately after the United Nations- and NATO-imposed peace came into existence. In April 2000, I led the UN Security Council’s first-ever delegation to Kosovo. On the first day, we visited a school where the young children from both communities were turning a garbage dump into a garden. They were clearing the garbage and planting trees and were doing so like friends, just like members of the same family.
Then we went to meet with the elders in the city hall to talk about the peace process. Very soon, the elders started blaming one another. The blame game nearly started a verbal fight. I told them to calm down, saying, “I just saw your children playing as friends. They have no animosity for each other. They are just friends. Let them grow up as friends. Why are you bringing the past bitterness, animosity into their lives? It is your responsibility as adults to see to it that it doesn’t happen. If we as adults have failed, we should not let the shadow of that failure creep into the lives of the young people, into our children.”
We need to encourage the young people to be themselves, to build their own character, their own personality, which is full of understanding, full of tolerance and full of respect for diversity. I believe that to be very important, and we need to convey that to the young people. This is the minimum we can do as adults. We should do everything to empower them, and I feel that such empowerment is going to stay with them for life. That is the significance of the Culture of Peace. That is its essence. It is the process of changing each one of us so that we become the agents of peace. It is not something temporary like resolving a conflict in one area or between communities without transforming and empowering people to sustain peace.
Think of the audience – all of you – in this room. If we transform ourselves, we will have five hundred people empowered with the message of the Culture of Peace. Start changing yourself; that is the most important thing we need to keep in mind.
This empowerment is so wonderfully visible in [SGI] President Daisaku Ikeda himself. When I speak with him, I feel that he exudes peace. His message is so touching. Last August, on 31 August , I had the pleasure of commencing a dialogue with him. I must say that I have never seen a man who is so innocent in his curiosity. He asked me about things that I have not been asked by anybody. It was so refreshing, so liberating! That part of our dialogue was written down, and I gave it to my children, telling them that “If you want to know your father, read this. It is insightful.” I gave that to my sister too, saying that she should also read it.
I believe we have a lot to learn from President Ikeda. A very strong message from him is to never give up in your efforts for peace, because you know working for peace or building the Culture of Peace, whether individually or in your community or in your groups, can be frustrating and disappointing sometimes. You may find that you are the sole voice for peace. You may find yourself asking: “What is happening in this world? Why am I the only person talking about the Culture of Peace?” For good causes, this has happened to many people. The world’s greatest thinkers, prophets, all have gone through this process. When you talk about something that shakes the existing system, you may not have many passengers with you, but don’t be disappointed. It will come to you. It is going to happen.
This distinguished speaker series focusing on the Culture of Peace has tremendous potential. To the organizers, my request is that the Culture of Peace, of course, is the goal, but you should think about a variety of topics for the series – issues that have implications for sustainable peace – issues covered by the eight areas as identified in the UN Programme of Action. Each of these topics is like a pearl — put together each of these pearls and they will turn into a necklace, a very nice necklace strung together. That will be the necklace of the Culture of Peace. You should also think about the diversity of speakers. Men and women of course, but the most important thing is bringing in young people. Young people! Listen to them! See what they have to share with us. It is very important. Of course, I believe you are thinking of putting the lectures together in publications to share with others so that those become a recorded history of people talking about the Culture of Peace. I think this is worthwhile.
Let me end by sharing my dream.
Worldwide, globally, there are many groups, some big, mostly small, even individuals working diligently for building the Culture of Peace. I believe that if we can create a network to connect all of these dots, dots representing hundreds of such organizations, hundreds of individuals, that way we would empower them in a big way and enhance the Global Movement for the Culture of Peace. A small group in Afghanistan or a group in Angola or a group in Albania will know that they are not alone. They will know that they have hundreds of other groups worldwide who are working for the Culture of Peace. They would not feel isolated any more. That is the empowerment that I would like to bring in. This is my dream – to create a global network, a global alliance of organizations, groups and individuals joining in the Global Movement for the Culture of Peace. Then, we can add others to the network, like schools, institutions and professional bodies. When you connect these dots, we will have a wonderful image for the Culture of Peace. This is something that I dream of, but I need to give this dream a real shape. So I am on the drawing board, and I am thinking about how to create this network. I know that I have all of your best wishes and all of your support in the realization of my dream. That is my wish and my hope.
Question and Answers
Audience Member 1: I have a question about what you described as “connecting the dots”. We talk a lot about a critical mass. To me, the Culture of Peace is a unifying goal, a wonderful new paradigm that, if enough people transform and buy into, could change the way this world works and transform violence to peace. Part of the problem seems not only in convincing people who don’t support peace but uniting people who do. Sometimes we fail to recognize that we are partners because of our language differences or because we have different views or different orientations on how to unite the many groups who have their own mission for peace. Do you have any thoughts about that?
Ambassador Chowdhury: As I keep saying, the critical mass is the individual. It is the most important thing. Peace within can only bring peace outside. That is very relevant. Empower yourself first with the message of peace that you believe. When you are empowered like that, you would never feel disappointed – you will never feel discouraged. But you have a point because I believe that the most important thing cannot be simply stated that the critical mass is the important part.
I have seen that many people have started on an individual basis in a very low-key way. These days in this technological age, you can share many things without even being in need of individually reaching out. The computers are there, the Internet is there. You can not only read, you can share, you can develop many things without the physical connection that we needed in earlier days. The physical connection, however, I never undervalue, because that has its own significance.
It is valuable to start at the low-key level, if you feel there are no people with you. I can tell you that very soon, you will find many, because in each of us that human quest for peace is there. It is manifested in a very different way in each individual. You have to strike the right chord to persuade a person to join you in your endeavor for peace. I think that is very natural, but start by talking with your colleagues, talking with your friends, talking with your family members. I think that is the best way to start. I have seen that. If I can get one additional fellow traveler with me, I believe I have contributed in a big way. That is what we need to do. With that simple thinking, you will get results that you could never dream of.
Don’t get discouraged. Keep focused. Start with the people you can reach out to first, and then you will find that that needed critical mass is growing.
Audience member 2: I’ve been living in New York for seven years, and my dream is to work for the United Nations. I was encouraged and moved by your speeches and have started to think about how to make my desire to contribute to world peace a reality. It seems that I have to work for the United Nations to make this happen. [How has your experience been, and what practical steps can I take as a woman?]
Anwarul Chowdhury: As I mentioned earlier, each one of us can contribute to the creation of a culture of peace wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. As a young woman, you have more reason to be proud, promoting a culture of peace in an efficient way.
In 2000, Resolution 13-25 of the Security Council was passed, focusing on women’s role in peace and security. When I proposed it, it was met with concern by the other fourteen members, but I insisted because up until then women were only mentioned as marginal contributors to the peace process. The resolution, which passed in October 2000, mentions women as integral contributors to conflict resolution, the peace process and building post-conflict structures.
For example, in Burundi, after President Nelson Mandela was part of the peace process, he noticed that things took off in a positive direction when women were involved in the peace negotiations. Women think of how their children and grandchildren can live. Men think about power or what they can gain for themselves by this peace process. It is not all of the time of all women or all men, but it has been seen to happen. You should be proud as a young woman that woman are such integral contributors to peace.
Start on a small scale, because if you start very big and you don’t succeed, you will feel discouraged. Start with yourself and with some people who have similar thinking, making it bigger in a geometric progression — two more people must each bring two. But we have to start with the individuals.
Audience member 3: I would like to seek, from Mrs. Chowdhury, your wisdom on the role of a woman supporting a man who is so active in contributing to world peace, and what is your message to young women who are future mothers?
Mrs. Chowdhury: I think my husband has already said it. I am a housewife who is 100 percent supportive of my husband. As a mother and friend, I say that you must follow a culture of peace.
Anwarul Chowdhury: I think my wife is too modest. Actually, she is encouraging, compassionate and has a deep empathy for other people. She encourages me every day. She is a human being with tremendous compassion for other human beings.
This is a rare thing. Sometimes, I tell her that she is too compassionate. She is very affected by any misery or suffering she witnesses around her and has encouraged me to do much more, particularly in the past five years, in my country of Bangladesh, to contribute to the reduction of misery.
In a small way, we achieved a little bit. We have been able to speak for the “voiceless countries.” Difficulties should never prevent us from doing more.
Audience member 4: I know that you took a stance when Pakistan was still West and East Pakistan, and now East Pakistan is Bangladesh. I would like to hear from you about the experience.
Anwarul Chowdhury: That was one of the proudest moments of my life, to contribute to the creation of Bangladesh, my homeland. It sowed the seeds of what I’m doing now.
Oppression, discrimination, intolerance, exploitation — all were being perpetrated on the people of Bangladesh. “Bangla” is the name of the language, and “desh” means country, so “Bangladesh” means “the country where Bangla is spoken.”
At that time, there was a majority whose voice was not heard. In 1952, I was a student. In 1971, I became a diplomat in India. There was a Pakistani military crackdown to suppress the people by force. Bengali people are generally very softhearted, but when faced with oppressive military crackdown, they revolted. The people were compared to the soil: mud is very soft, but when sun strikes the soil, it becomes very hard and turns into rock.
I was in India at that time. Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were being killed, and I could not serve a government that perpetrated this kind of massacre on my own people. People were fleeing Bangladesh into India and [because of that], I could hear [their experiences]. Many members of my family were wounded or killed.
We all decided to revolt against the Pakistani government and serve the Bengali cause. We physically took over a building, turning a Pakistani Mission into the Bengali Mission. We flew that flag as our flag of independence. We started to contact the Pakistani embassies and told Bengali diplomats to join us.
That started [a movement] to gain global support. On the ground, [Bengalis were] fighting the Pakistani forces. In March 1971, there was a military crackdown. In April, we declared allegiance to Bangladesh. Each room [in the mission] was a different [ministry]. I had to give up my own office. I worked under a mango tree with a little desk for seven months.
My parents were in East Pakistan, but they were being pressured by the Pakistani government. My mother was being pressured [to tell where I was, and so they] moved from one place to another.
I was branded a traitor by the Pakistani government and given life sentences in prison. [To his wife,] Thank you for [sticking with me]. That was wonderful.
In December 1971, Bangladesh was liberated and [we took] all the files of the government-in-exile.
Audience member 5: Today is the fiftieth anniversary of President Ikeda’s release from prison on trumped-up charges. He, too, was pressured about his mentor. At a Victory Over Violence activity in a Brooklyn school, a high school senior shared a story about his friend who [was killed next to him]. Is there a way to secure one’s own security — of our own life or the lives of loved ones [while we engage in a battle for the greater good]?
Anwarul Chowdhury: We should abolish war as a way to achieve an objective. It should not be considered one of our options. The way I see coming decades, challenges will be faced, but [we will not be] engaging in daily violence.
You raise a good question. There is no single answer. Each of us will have to answer that for ourselves. I am very happy that many of you are [involved] in Victory Over Violence. That’s what we have to tell each other — that violence doesn’t get us anywhere. This word revenge should be deleted from our dictionary. Revenge perpetuates animosity, violence. I am wondering how to get people to come out of the stranglehold of violence “because my parents, the parents of my parents, my tribe suffered.”
I have another story, about Bosnia, which was told by a friend who was working there at the time. After the peace process took place and some Muslims were telling their original stories. One man said, “Every day, I tell my son about the hatred that we have gone through,” instilling hatred in the next generation. Even if one person has this in him, it’s dangerous. That’s why we should also talk to adults [about creating a culture of peace].
Audience member 6: As a young person, what were your inspirations, examples [in life and] in literature?
Anwarul Chowdhury: I get this question often. Again, I keep asking myself the same question. Instead of asking what inspires me, I ask what shaped my mind. There are three things: my parents, the physical nature of my country, and the opportunity that I had to read. I read extensively. I still do. I read anything in print. My wife sometimes takes the paper [away from me].
We have to be creative, to have the desire to read. It made me develop compassion and feeling for people. [I found encouraging] the stories of people who faced challenges and came out triumphant; President Ikeda is one of them. I find that people facing tremendous obstacles aim to come out — this determination [of theirs] motivates me again and again.
I try to learn from everyone, young and old, it doesn’t matter. I feel wonderful learning from people.
Audience member 7: I tried to start a peace committee in my school, [but I have no one to support me]. What do you do when you’re the only one?
Anwarul Chowdhury: The best ally in a school atmosphere is a teacher. You have to find either a teacher in your class or another class. [When you share your idea with him/her, he/she will definitely support you.]
At the Culture of Peace exhibit at the United Nations in 2004, on opening day, eighty teachers came. We told them, “Bring your students,” and they started bringing them, [even ones so young, they couldn’t understand the exhibit]. The older students were told to take care of the younger ones [as docents; there were twenty-five or so of them]. Later on, we decorated them with Peace Ambassador awards.
Start small, like a ten-minute video on peace. You can call the United Nations and let them know what you are trying to accomplish, and they will send you material.
Yesterday, I was talking to a rap group that sings about peace. If that’s a way of reaching people who will otherwise not listen to you, we should do that. If teachers are not responding, then write to me.