Conversations With America: Bridging Divides: Youth, Peace and Reconciliation

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Esther Brimmer
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Forest Whitaker, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation
Washington, DC
October 26, 2011

MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations With America, a discussion between a top State Department official and a subject matter expert, where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.

Today, we will discuss the United States’ and the United Nations’ efforts to promote peace and reconciliation and the role of youth as agents of change. We’ve received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world, throughout our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.

Now, let’s meet our guests. Esther Brimmer is the Assistant Secretary of International Organization Affairs at the State Department. She oversees and coordinates U.S. interests through international organizations in areas including human rights, peacekeeping, food security, humanitarian relief, and climate change. Thank you for being with us, Assistant Secretary Brimmer.

Mr. Forest Whitaker is the Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. An Academy Award winning actor, Mr. Whitaker is best known – well, I would say he is known for his role as Idi Amin, in The Last King of Scotland, for which he won an Academy Award. He is also a dedicated humanitarian whose work in Uganda with NGOs earned him the designation of goodwill ambassador.

Welcome Mr. Whitaker, thank you so much for joining us.

MR. WHITAKER: It’s great to be here.

MS. BENTON: Some of our viewers may be unfamiliar with UNESCO, or with what it means to be a goodwill ambassador. Can you tell us why you accepted this position and what you hope to achieve?

MR. WHITAKER: I mean, UNESCO is the UN branch or the United Nations’ branch for Education, Science, and Culture. And the organization works around the world and, like, building connections between people. The motto of it is to build peace in the minds of men and women. And that is the ultimate goal, to create a wholeness. And I was asked to be a goodwill ambassador because of my work with children soldiers and with different conflict areas. And my mission for them is to spread that word, that concept of creating peace in the minds, and I would say hearts, of men and women all over the world.

MS. BENTON: Good deal. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Assistant Secretary Brimmer, Esther, the United States rejoined UNESCO a few years ago after a long absence. Why did we rejoin and what are our priorities in this organization?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: The United States returned to UNESCO after many years of absence. And it’s an opportunity for us to work on issues that are really core values that Americans share – talking about, as the Ambassador’s already said, about peace and reconciliation, how we can create an environment here we can work together more closely by using educational, scientific, and cultural tools. And we work on everything from educational issues to also, for example, supporting press freedom, freedom of expression, the ways that actually liberate the spirit and provide, really, the values that underpin international stability. These are things the United States cherishes and wants to promote.

MS. BENTON: Very good. So I wanted to, Forest, briefly touch on your experience working directly with youth in Uganda. We have some photos here of you at the Hope North School, a living and learning community for refugees, orphans, and former child soldiers. Can you tell us about your experience with the Hope North School and the example this could provide for working with youth in other conflict areas?

MR. WHITAKER: I think that Hope North acts in a way like a village. A lot of the child soldiers are orphans. Some of them have even had to kill their own families. And they have come there to rejoin the community, and Hope North allows them a place to do that. It gives them an education; it gives them a place to live, in an adoptive family in a way. The village itself adopts them and tries to move them forward. And they’ve been really successful in sort of ridding some of the pains and lifting them up, because a number of the kids now are going into college. It’s been a process and it’s a beautiful one.

I think to reinvigorate the spirit is very difficult when you, as a child, have been forced to kill, for say a decade, and this is all you know. And there’s an emptiness that occurs there. And I think what Hope North is trying to do is to look into those eyes and bring that spark back. It’s still there. It’s just to give a place or feeding ground of nourishment to allow it to grow.

MS. BENTON: Wow. That’s amazing. And, we’ve incidentally received a comment on our blog from a youth chairperson of the Siranko Town Council in Uganda. Donga A. in Uganda writes: Governments should involve youth in decision-making to avoid violence. What are your thoughts on this, Assistant Secretary Brimmer? And then, obviously with your work, Forest, I want you to feel free to jump in.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: That’s a very important question. We think that we should, as governments, be reaching out to the next generation, to hear from youth leaders, from people across the country who care about how we come to decisions. After all, the choices we make on human rights, climate change will fundamentally affect the world in which they live. So we’re actually trying to see how we can engage and have more youth leaders attend international conferences, participate in international events. We want to hear directly from them about what we care about. It’s one of the reasons we’re really excited about using new media, so we can hear directly what the young people of the world care about, and there’s some very exciting things going on in many organizations, including at UNESCO.

MS. BENTON: Good deal.

MR. WHITAKER: At UNESCO just recently was at youth conference, and 130 countries from around the world came together, and they were from 18 to 25 year-olds. And they put together what they wanted to present to the general conference. And it’s being presented this coming week. They finished the document for that. But I think that the youth have to recognize that although you want to penetrate the governmental forces, which you will, you have to first and foremost decide what it is you want to do, what it is you want to change, and then to actively go about doing it, to have no fear about doing it, because right now we’re in a time where, as you said, with the social media, with different elements, with connection, you can change your environment, you can change your world. It’s happening all over the planet, and it can happen with that person from Uganda who just wrote in.

MS. BENTON: Right. And youth are the catalyst for a lot of it when you think and look at the Arab Spring, how that exploded around the actions of what the youth were doing and what the youth wanted. UNESCO’s mandate includes promoting common ground between peoples and cultures. Does the United States support that goal, and are there good examples of when that works, Esther?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: The United States very much supports the opportunity to reach out and bring cultures together. And what we try particularly through UNESCO is to use the tools of education, working through schools to get to students to give them the opportunities to share ideas, to find platforms to they can share ideas with each other. And we look for opportunities to support cultural events and interchanges. We work very closely, for example, on the preservation of cultural heritage, both the physical – the museums, the great monuments – but also the intangible – the songs, the histories of societies. These are what make us human, and so we very much support the ability to preserve and promote the links that bind us all together.

MR. WHITAKER: Assistant Secretary Brimmer has been supporting so many different things, and for myself and working with the International Institute for Peace, she’s given a great deal of support to organization and to spread this message of peace around the world as well as the sort of cultural initiatives that, as you say, spring more from the heart that are intangibles. But when a culture dies, it kills a people, and we have to always be watchful of that, and I think that she’s very mindful of that. It’s really exciting to see.

MS. BENTON: I was just struck by what you were saying with the children once they’ve had to commit so many different atrocities, how do win back or reenergize their hearts and their mind? I mean, that is just to me – it’s sad, but it – the other flip side of it is it can be exciting when you see it occurring again.

MR. WHITAKER: It’s really difficult to find reconciliation sometimes, because when they return, a lot of times they have to return to the same community of which they’ve committed the atrocities. And so as a result, across the street, it can be someone that – someone’s father or child that they’ve killed. They could have had to kill their own parents in order to – forced to kill their own parents, and they’ve been in this environment, go back to their own homes. This is a very complicated one, and after you’ve done that for ten years – five, ten years, then of course, certain things start to change in you in how you reconcile not just with your community and the world but how you reconcile inside of yourself, which I think is one of the most complicated things – how to find peace. Because I deal with the students, and they’re okay, they’re now in school, but they can’t sit alone, they can’t do certain things alone. They don’t want to have to look at what’s occurred inside. And it’s that process, also, of healing that has to go on to find true reconciliation to be able to continue to move forward in a community and to continue with your life.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. And do you find that also in your travels, Esther?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: As the ambassador has already indentified, that the impact of conflict on child soldiers is devastating, and we find that the human costs of conflict are profound and long-lasting, and trying to both help people find peace, but also to make sure that they’re not part of the next cycle of violence – that is so important to so many societies, whether at home or internationally.

MS. BENTON: Yeah. We’ve received a question on our blog from Sammi in Minnesota and this is what Sammi writes: How do we involve youth in the political practice so they have voices and avoid the frustration? So you want that one? I mean, because I think we’re talking all around that really.

MR. WHITAKER: Sure. I mean, there’s a number of different types of organizations that the youths are starting to speak from. Again, I’d just like to say that I think the – it’s one thing to enter into the dialogue. Look, they entered into the dialogue and they entered into the record certain limits that they would like to be addressed as youths. But I think what I found most powerful was when I was talking to each individual and they were talking about their individual things they were doing in their own space, in their own country, and how they were, like, effecting change in that way.

I’m not saying that it’s – that we can’t look to joint (ph) governmental organizations or that, in the end, it doesn’t have to be addressed on that level. I’m saying that on a micro-level it has to be dealt with in their individual lives and them making a decision to change those things and take an active movement towards allowing those things to happen. And that’s really what we’re seeing. That’s what we’re seeing on Wall Street. That’s what we’re seeing in the Arab Spring. That’s what we’re seeing in Greece and Spain and Italy, all over the globe, in Syria, whether there’s losses and sadness and pain accompanying it. But what people are trying to do is to change their existence, to change their lives and their environment.

And that’s what we have to – and that’s what I would encourage whoever the person is from Minnesota to think about, is what it they need to change, what is it they’d like to say. And then within that they can start to affect – and then in their communities actively they can start to make a difference. We’re not alone anymore. We’re in that mystic time, that time where you can reach across the world and your thoughts will go there from a phone. You know what I mean? We’re in a different space, and so if that person wants to, they can effectuate a change. They can congregate and aggregate people to come together after their cause. They can find a way to communicate to the government and to the people their desires for a better tomorrow.

MS. BENTON: But it’s on a people-to-people level. I mean, it can be, and that’s as effective as – even more effective than maybe going to the government first and having them filter. Yeah.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I think that’s what’s so exciting now, is that you can be engaged in international activities, making links with other people who care about the issues that you do in your own community. You can be home and link across the planet with people who may be grappling with how do I improve water quality in my neighborhood, how do I find a space for kids to play so they have something to do after school, how do I find – identify a problem in my community and make it better; who else can help me with those ideas. So that’s very exciting.

But I also think that we in government should also try to find ways to reach out and hear other voices. I think one of the exciting things about the recent youth conference in UNESCO was the process of actually choosing the youth delegates, because some really exciting young people were doing some great things were involved, but there were many kids who were also part of the competition, part of the dialogue. And that conversation was valuable in and of itself, hearing about what students cared about. Even if they didn’t go to the conference, they were part of talking about what’s the future that they want to have. And that was great.

MS. BENTON: Smart kids. I love talking about smart kids who really actually get something done. Global youth are playing a crucial role in the social and political evolutions transpiring in North Africa and the Middle East. What is your message to these youth if you were to have one single message or if you have a number of things you want to say?

MR. WHITAKER: Just remember that all the photographs and all the images they’ve seen from the past, when they see people marching and they see people like striving for what they believe, and they looked at those pictures and they see these individuals, and they don’t know their names, but they look at them as heroes, that they have to recognize that their pictures are being taken right now, that what they’re trying to say and what they’re doing is being recorded right now, that they are those heroes of tomorrow and they’re those heroes of today, that they possess today and tomorrow. And they have to maintain and remember that, and if they do that, I think they can stand strong and firm in what they want to do.

MS. BENTON: Okay. Esther?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: It’s exciting to see what’s possible worldwide because many people are standing up and saying, “We too should have – be able to say what we think, choose our government, choose our own lives,” and that everyone is entitled to the human rights we talk about every day, and it’s not just what we say in the halls at the UN in Geneva, but what happens in real people’s lives that makes a difference. And that’s why we work internationally, is to empower people to be in control of their own lives so they can help set their own futures and make that a better future.

MS. BENTON: Right. I know the President and the Secretary of State are doing that. When the Secretary travels, she does civil society. Yes, she does her high-level bilaterals and multilaterals, but she makes a point of engaging on the people-to-people level. And I think that’s really, as you all have been saying, where the change will be most effective and it’ll spread very rapidly.

So I think that – I know that you’ve talked a little bit about the work at UNESCO. Can you talk a little bit more about what you do with international organizations beyond UNESCO that are encompassing some of the things we’re talking about here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you. Yes, I’m particularly fortunate to have the opportunity to work internationally with the United States participation in the United Nations, and we’re able to work a wide range of issues, whether at the Security Council, when we’re looking at how can the international community protect civilians in some of our most difficult conflicts, whether in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Sudan, in South Sudan, dealing with these and other conflicts, where we’re really trying to understand how can we help civilians.

Traditionally governments would work on protecting governments. We’re also now trying to look at how we help real people who, unfortunately, are on the frontlines of violence. And too often they’re the most vulnerable. The ambassador has already identified particularly the effect on child soldiers. We’re looking at how can we bring mechanisms to support and help prevent future child soldiers. But we also work on human rights issues in Geneva, again, trying to uphold the principles we have been discussing and defend the fact that all human rights are universal, all of us are entitled to them, and that’s a principle that we must defend.

But we also work internationally on trying to fight hunger, through our work on food security, and trying to promote international health and particularly to try to make sure that more children, and particularly young children in the early stages of life, get that crucial nutrition that will help them have better lives. So we try to look on many aspects that really support the well-being of people.

MS. BENTON: Good deal. This is another good conversation. It swings by so quickly, but I did want to ask you, Ambassador, if you could just give us some parting thoughts about your work with UNESCO, about just some of the things you’re doing around the globe. I know we had spoken earlier, and you talked about setting up field offices in Monterrey, Mexico and other places where it’s explosive there.

MR. WHITAKER: Sure. Domestically, we’re set up at the International Institute for Peace that’s set up at Rutgers University. And we have a program where we educate – a masters and ambassadors program and a certificate program there – to educate people in peace-building, community building, conflict resolution. And at the same time, we are in partnerships or beginning partnerships around the world, where we’ll be working with different countries.

Right now, we’ve targeted and are talking to Monterrey, Mexico, Medellin, Colombia, and we’re in Uganda in Masindi, and then also we’re trying to set up our first pilot in the U.S., which would be in Newark, New Jersey under Cory Booker, who’s also on our board.

At the same time, there’s been a number of countries that have started to ask us to work with them in our program in San Salvador in El Salvador and Honduras. We were just asked by Morgan Smith (ph) to set up something in Sudan, in South Sudan, and so we’ll be doing that. But what we do in those cases is we go in, we train people in conflict resolution, and we send them out as participatory researchers. They go out and tell us what’s going on in their world and their universe while we’re paired with a grassroots organization.

And then we take that information and we look at it and we try to find how we can make the community whole. And that may be like we bring a corporate into it, so then we meet with corporate to try to figure out the thing that would benefit them, but also will serve the community, and to try to find a long-sustaining peace or a space. And at the same time, the people that we train, we continue to work with them over the years, so we work with them every week. So it’s an ongoing process of building a certain sense of leadership itself with the youths, and it’s also like trying to make the community complete, to look at all those problems and flaws in a holistic way and then try to allow them to be everything that they could be with their help – them being the initiators of what we’re doing.

MS. BENTON: I can see in your face that the work brings you a lot of joy.


MS. BENTON: And I’m sure the – joy and sadness –


MS. BENTON: -- as you see the real life of what’s going on – gone on out there.

Assistant Secretary, can you give us some – your parting thoughts?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, first, I think what’s exciting is to see people of an international stature who are committed to try to help advance conflict prevention and rebuilding societies – as you say, making societies whole. That is really the root foundations for human well-being, and that’s what we need for long-term international stability.

So diplomacy can help support that effort, but ultimately, it’s about people taking charge of their own lives – as I said, looking to a better future. It’s an exciting time to be doing this work. It’s incredibly challenging. The issues are incredibly difficult. But to see the sorts of networks of cooperation that are really new and exciting is really heartening and inspiring.

MS. BENTON: Good deal. Well, this is one conversation that I don’t want to see end, but unfortunately, we are running up against our time constraints, and so that will conclude this sessions of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Brimmer and Ambassador Whitaker for sharing your work and knowledge of these – this issue.

Also, I’d like to thank each of you for joining us today. Please note that the video and the transcript will be available on very shortly. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century and our work with the partners across the world. We look forward to engaging with you again very soon.

Thank you so much.