Despite all of the optimism and passion brought by the young people attending the One Young World summit this year in Bogota, we cannot ignore the fact that we live in troubled times. I read with dismay the One Young World survey of 2,000 young people around the world in which more than half of respondents said they had experienced conflict during their lifetime and 60 percent lived in fear of terrorism in their country.
Violent conflict causes a great deal of human suffering. Armed violence disrupts agriculture, as farmers are forced to flee their farms and see their harvests burned or confiscated; hunger and despair follow. Health systems are overwhelmed and without access to medicine, food, and clean water diseases spread rapidly often killing many more than the guns and bullets. The economy suffers, people fall into poverty as commercial life grinds to a halt and critical infrastructure crumbles or is willfully destroyed.
But why does conflict occur, and how can we build lasting peace?
The causes are complex and contextual but allow me highlight a few general points.
Political factors are often a major driver of armed conflict. Since conflict is often caused by having unequal access to political power, it follows that a good way to avoid conflict is to encourage inclusive democracy, which gives everyone a say in decisions that affect their lives. Citizens must believe that they are their nation’s own agents of change and that the ballot box is their strongest tool.
Another driver of conflict is economic inequality. When resources are not equitably shared and opportunities are not made accessible to all, grievances and resentment is nurtured. Globalization has integrated the world’s economies and societies more than ever, creating unprecedented wealth. But it is also generating a backlash because the benefits are not fairly shared and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened.
These trends influence a third driver of conflict: social fragmentation. In the developed and developing world, polarization in society is rising while trust in institutions is eroding. Populist and xenophobic groups are taking advantage of this fear to reject the ties that bind us across religious, national, racial, and class divides. In doing so, they undermine pluralist norms which can help maintain a peaceful, diverse, and flourishing society.
And at the confluence of these drivers of conflict is climate change, perhaps the single greatest threat we face today.
The global and national response to these pressures will test states and societies, with the risk that some of them will resort to violence to cope with the change.
Now allow me to share with you some of the elements I have found to be most valuable in building peace.
First, trust is the essential element for getting beyond conflict. It must be built, step-by-step, into a momentum of confidence that takes any peace process forward.
Second, if a peace process is to succeed, it must be inclusive and based on a frank dialogue among all the protagonists.
Third, the voices of the victims must be heard and heard clearly. Justice need not be an impediment to peace – it is an essential partner.
Clearly the path to peace is fraught with difficulties and dilemmas. But the reward is worth the struggle. An inspiring example can be found right here in Colombia: the Colombian peace process drives home the message that we must never lose hope.
We need hope but also strong leadership. And this is where everyone must play a role. In societies emerging from conflict, it is up to each individual and institution to stress that which unites us over that which sets us apart. And let me repeat: you are never too young to lead and never too old to learn. So I call on the young generation to put its remarkable energy, insight and passion in the service of reconciliation and peace. The path is yours to construct and pursue.
Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation