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When People Talk, Great Things Happen – Speech

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Text of presentation delivered by Salma Yusuf at the World Conference on Youth 2014

Members of the head table, distinguished guests, Conference delegates, ladies and gentleman,

It is a pleasure to be here today and I thank the organizers of the event for inviting me to share my ideas with you on Pluralism and its importance for peaceful co-existence.

It has been famously said that youth is wasted on the young. George Bernard Shaw was quite clear in expanding on this, his quote. He defined the statement as derogatory when he said that “young people are brainless, and don’t know what they have; they squander every opportunity of being young, on being young.” Basically what he meant to say was that young people are not always aware of the power they hold to bring about change in their lives world they live in.

Today, in the twenty first century however, young people are beginning to reverse the fallacy in this belief. Today, it is not merely impractical but also undesirable for young people to remain beneficiaries only in a process that will deeply impact their lives, their future and the future of their world. Hence, we are humbled to be a part of a generation where there is an ever-growing awareness on the need for youth to be stakeholders in national, regional and international governance mechanisms. Such awareness includes the realization that youth can, want and indeed must contribute towards the making of a better world.

It is important that we, as youths of today come together, in work and in play, to build bridges, break shackles and shed prejudices. We are not the future; we are the present because the future is here already. Every action we undertake today will affect our lives today and our world tomorrow. Therefore, we have a compelling responsibility like no other generation before us. It is time that we find new space and strengthen existing ones in order to bring about the world we want. It is time for us to stand together as one. The time is now.

I would like to draw your attention to the relevance of the subject to Sri Lanka. Initial youth uprisings planted the seeds of the three-decade ethnic conflict. Both the ignition of the ethnic conflict and insurrections have stemmed from our Universities as well as from other sections of the youth population. Hence, the case for involving youth in the processes of building pluralism and peaceful co-existence is a no-brainer.

At this juncture, I would like to broaden the discussion to share a few emerging ideas in the global context that can be creatively and innovatively used to foster pluralism and peaceful co-existence in our societies and our world. Two particular initiatives are worthy of consideration in this context.

First, the United Nations Dialogue among Civilizations Project is worth revisiting. The year 2001 was declared by the United Nations as the “International Year of Dialogue among Civilizations” which was a logical sequel to the celebration, in 2000, of the “International Year for the Culture of Peace.” The aim was to provide impetus to plan and implement appropriate cultural, educational and social programmes to promote the concept of dialogue among civilizations, including organizing conferences and seminars and disseminating information and scholarly material on the subject.
The year provided the opportunity to emphasize that the present globalization process does not only encompass economic, financial and technological aspects, but must also focus on human, cultural, spiritual dimensions and on the interdependence of humankind and its rich diversity.

The founding principles of a movement for inter-cultural dialogue are worth revisiting even today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, for an assessment of relevance to a local context of intra-state relations. Such a movement seeks to analyze the dynamics of interaction between cultures by highlighting their mutual contributions, borrowings and interactions.

The aim is to acquire a better understanding of the long-term processes that are the mainspring of the memory of peoples.  They are invariably the source of prejudice and incomprehension, if not intolerance of others, and they lay the foundations for dialogue between different civilizations, cultures, religions and spiritual traditions.  This approach transcends the traditional, reductive approach to intercultural dialogue addressing only the mutual knowledge of cultures and civilizations.

One of the goals of dialogue among civilizations is to spread knowledge and appreciation of the historical and cultural background of peoples living in different circumstances and areas of the world. Often, the lack of mutual understanding prevents the process of constructive communication and cross-fertilization.

Inter-cultural dialogue has often been defined as an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups belonging to different cultures that would lead to a deeper understanding of the other.

However, while dialogue is critical, it must be followed with carefully developed measures designed to create and preserve a harmonious and inclusive society. A harmonious and inclusive society in turn enables the individual to participate in and to identify himself or herself with the community as a whole. Such identification is a key factor in the prevention of future conflicts and in advancing post-war reconciliation.

A second and more recent initiative that I would like to draw your attention to is a more recent one and chaired by the internationally renowned scholar and peace activist, Amartya Sen. The Commonwealth Commission of Respect and Understanding which was constituted in the 2005, produced a report in 2007 called The Civil Paths to Peace. The report and its recommendations have thus far, and unfortunately I add, spent more time on the shelf than in governance programmes. Therefore, I would like to take the opportunity today, at the World Conference on Youth to call on the governments and the young people of the world to revisit the deliberations of the eleven thought leaders who drafted the report. I believe the insights and practical ways forward contained therein to be inspirational to building pluralism and peace in our societies and world.

I share with you three particular aspects of the report that flew out of the pages, as it were, and struck me instantly. First, the need for new thinking about conflicts in the world given the rise of terrorism, extremism, conflict and violence and its rise in the contemporary world. I would like to add here that we need to channel our creative energies and innovation into finding solutions to traditional and non-traditional threats and causes of conflict. This I believe to be the only way forward in an ever-changing and increasingly globalized world.

Second and often missed in the discourse of conflict and peace is the connection it bears to poverty and inequality. Hence, we must not overlook the larger issues which have the potential to perpetuate and exacerbate conflicts and tension between countries and peoples.

Third, the report highlights how the history of the world matters to contemporary problems, since the effects of past maltreatment and humiliation can last for a very long time. The civil paths must, therefore, include addressing past as well as present humiliations. When, as is sometimes the case, the confrontational perceptions are exaggerated by confusion or magnified through extremist instigation, those misapprehensions should still have to be addressed through civil means, with good use of discussion, open scrutiny and a willingness on the part of others to listen to complaints and grievances. The outcomes of these changes would have to be periodically evaluated, in a systematic way, since complex and long-standing problems are not easily eradicated.

Civil paths to peace, the Commission argues, are important and can be very effective. Aside from individual policies, some of which have been spelt out in some detail in the report, there is a big general need for understanding the reach and rationale of using civil paths. The need for hard security measures does not in any way reduce the abiding relevance of pursuing the civil routes.

The Commission argues, in particular, that there is a strong need for much more dialogue and discussion on the richness of human identities and the counterproductive nature of placing people in rigidly separated identity-boxes, linked with religion or community. The importance of people’s cosmopolitan identity also demands greater recognition than it tends to get, without denying the relevance of other identities that can comfortably co-exist with a global outlook. At the international level, civil paths will be inescapably linked with multilateral approaches across borders.

I would like to conclude by leaving you with the thought on the importance of dialogue for both pluralism and peaceful co-existence. The value of constructive engagement and dialogue for peaceful co-existence with those who we agree and especially with those we disagree cannot be overstated. Because, when people talk, great things happen.

I thank you.
[email protected]

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London.

She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building.

She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Email: [email protected]

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