Thank you, Minister for that introduction.
Mr. Secretary-General, Your Excellencies, Ladies, and Gentlemen:
It’s an honor to be here and to have the opportunity to connect with all of you today about this essential topic. I would like to thank the Secretary-General for his leadership in helping us transform the way we think about conflict and for guiding us toward a new model of peacebuilding where we shift our focus from stopping conflicts once they arise to preventing them before they begin. That, I believe, is the single most important change we can make if we want to create a world of enduring and sustainable peace for every man, woman, and child on this planet.
Our commitment to preventing conflict and armed violence is a promise that we will invest more in the world’s young people. Children and youth make up almost half of the global population. This means that young people are not only tomorrow’s leaders—they must also be today’s peacebuilders.
Through my work as a UNESCO Special Envoy, as an SDG Advocate, and with my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative, I have had the privilege of working with some extraordinary young women and men who live in parts of the world touched by conflict. Thanks to peace education and conflict-resolution training they’ve received, these youth have been empowered to make a real and significant difference in their cities and villages. Because of their efforts, their communities are safer, stronger, and more resilient.
I’ve seen a young man in South Sudan, abducted in the midst of war, return to his home to help guide others to safety, saving dozens of lives and dissuading young people from joining the fighting. I know a young woman in Tijuana, not even twenty-years-old, who’s taking care of two siblings by herself and still finds the time to run a training program for teenagers in a local prison, helping them find the courage in themselves they need to get back on their feet and avoid making the same mistakes. I’ve worked with child soldiers in Uganda, who returned from war shells of their previous selves—but thanks to the care and compassion they received at a special school for victims of Uganda’s civil war—have started a chain of small businesses and are providing jobs for vulnerable youth in their communities.
These are remarkable young women and men. And yet I think their courage is the rule, not the exception. I think their willingness to help others—their passion for peace—is a fundamental human desire that exists in all of us. There are currently 1.8 billion people on our planet between the ages of 10 and 24. Imagine what a tremendous force for good they would be if we invested as much time, energy, and money in their education and development as we do in fighting wars.
The stories I just told you about some of the young women and men I work with—you won’t read about those in the newspaper. The benefits of investing in conflict prevention are not always obvious, but in some ways, that is exactly the point. When we invest in peace education and conflict prevention, we empower millions of people to live lives of goodness, where they can contribute freely and productively to their local societies. This might not make headlines, but at the end of the day, it is what matters most.
Take it from me, these programs to engage ordinary citizens in building peace and transforming conflict can and do make an enormous difference in our world and in the lives of the people they touch.
You, in this room, are some of the most powerful and influential leaders in our world. With the decisions you make, you have the ability to change lives and build futures. I believe that you also have the skills to transform the attitudes and perspectives of people in your country and around the world. Collectively, you can make the financial investment in our youth and in our future that we need, and you can empower ordinary women, men, and children to see that they have the capacity to create change in their communities and around the world.
The fact that you’re here today tells me you care, and that you want to make a difference by joining the Secretary-General and other leaders on our mission to make conflict prevention a central part of our peacebuilding agenda. This is a good start, but we need to follow it up with tangible action. Because if we make a commitment in our future—if we empower tomorrow’s leaders and today’s peacebuilders—I believe they will transform the world in ways we never thought possible.
Thank you for all you do to help make that vision a reality.