International Day of Peace 2023 - From Symbolism to a Call for Action: Human Rights and Sustainable Development for Peace
Each year the International Day of Peace (IDP) is observed around the world on 21 September. Every year the Peace Bell Ceremony is held in the Peace Garden at United Nations Headquarters. A minute of silence is observed to reflect on the necessity of peace and to recommit to its ideals.
A speech is made by the UN Secretary General and by the President of the General Assembly, before the Peace Bell is rung. The bell was donated by the United Nations Association of Japan in 1954. The bell is only rung twice a year: the other day being the first day of Spring.
The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/36/67, 30 November 1981, International Year of Peace and International Day of Peace. The founding mandate established that the ‘promotion of peace’ was one of the key aims of the UN, as set out under the UN Charter 1945. As such the resolution declared that,'the third Tuesday of September, the opening day of the regular sessions of the General Assembly, shall be officially proclaimed and observed as International Day of Peace and shall be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples;'
It further invited ‘all Member States, organs and organizations of the United Nations system, regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, peoples and individuals to commemorate in an appropriate manner the International Day of Peace.’
The original vision established by the resolution was one of ideals and symbolism in which peace was conceived of as defined by UNESCO in its Constitution’s Preamble:
'since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed, […] that a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of Governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.'
Whilst admirable in its intentions and highlighting the need for global attention to be given to advocating, mobilising, and educating for peace, the impact of the IDP was questionable. Although arguably it could be said to strengthen the ideals for peace, concrete actions were lacking. Consequently, 20 years later in 2001 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution A/RES/55/282, 28 September 2001, International Day of Peace, and unanimously voted to designate the Day as ‘a day of global ceasefire and non-violence, an invitation to all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the Day; and to cooperate with the United Nations in the establishment of the global ceasefire.’ There is a lack of data as to how many states and non-state actors actually observe this 24 hr global ceasefire but the goal is a worthy one and has a practical impact if observed even by a few states. We do know that back in March 2020 when the Secretary-General appealed for an ‘immediate global ceasefire’ in light of the COVID 19 pandemic, 54 member states endorsed the ceasefire, along with a number of regional actors and faith leaders (70 endorsements in all by 03 April 2020).
However, endorsement is not implementation and many conflicts actually intensified during COVID despite the ceasefire being backed by the UN Security Council. Notwithstanding the challenges of implementing a global ceasefire, the IDP does provide an opportunity to engage with the international community and to mobilise political will and resources to address global challenges that impede peace. The existence of the IDP serves to help build a ‘culture of peace’ and provides an impetus to help transform ongoing violent conflict throughout the world.
Each annual International Day of Peace has a particular focus: the theme for 2023 is ‘Actions for peace: Our ambition for the #GlobalGoals’. Some people may wonder why the theme focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals rather than other seemingly more obvious challenges such as nuclear disarmament or reducing the small arms trade, but peace is more than the end of direct physical violence. Peace entails the development of a sustainable society where people live in human security and can enjoy their human rights, flourish, and develop.
Such a defintion of peace is known as positive peace, i.e. not just the absence of direct physical violence but the elimination of structural, political and cultural violence. This entails ending discrimination, tackling inequality and poverty, building capabilities, and transitioning to a greener, sustainable, healthy environment. Accordingly, achieving the SDGs is crucial to achieving and sustaining peace. Similarly, fostering peace can contribute to the realisation of a range of the goals and their targets including but not solely SDG 16 Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.
Recent years have proved to be very challenging to realising the SDG on Peace and Justice, as recognised by the recent 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Report:
'Ongoing and new violent conflicts around the world are derailing the global path to peace and achievement of Goal 16. Alarmingly, the year 2022 witnessed a more than 50 per cent increase in conflict-related civilian deaths, largely due to the war in Ukraine; As of the end of 2022, 108.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide – an increase of 19 million compared with the end of 2021 and two and a half times the number of a decade ago.'
Significantly, the report notes that ‘Structural injustices, inequalities and emerging human rights challenges are putting peaceful and inclusive societies further out of reach.’ These human rights challenges and the nexus between peace, development and human rights is the subject of my research. Whilst there has been attention given to the intersection between peace and human rights and development and human rights, it is only in recent years that the nexus between all three pillars of the UN has been formally recognised and studied. The concept and process of Sustaining Peace adopted in 2016 by both the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council and the parallel Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledged that the realisation, protection, and promotion of human rights was crucial to achieving both aims.
Moreover, to tackle structural injustices it is imperative to realise and incorporate economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) as well as more commonly researched civil and political rights. My research focuses on the role of such rights in building and sustaining peace. The subject of my forthcoming monograph with Cambridge University Press examines this relationship and uses primary data to analyse their contribution to areas such as peace agreements, conflict prevention and post-conflict development and reconstruction as well as examining the practice of the UN Committee on ESCR relating to conflict and peace. Moreover, related research I have undertaken with colleagues at the University of Glasgow and Freie Universität Berlin, examines and the role of peace agreements as a foundation for sustainable development within the policy framework of the ‘triple nexus’ – that is the interconnection between peace, development, and humanitarian action.
In addition to academic research having an impact outside of academia is very important to me. In June this year I began discussions with the Special Rapporteur of the UN CESCR on drafting a new General Comment on ESCR and Conflict. Previously I have advised the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee on a Bill of Rights on human rights and peacebuilding as well as working collaboratively with several global NGOs on developing new insights into the subject. My aim is to make an important and innovative contribution to both scholarly work and the development of policy and practice concerning human rights, peace and development – for my research to contribute to the vision of peace as set out by the UN Secretary-General in his 2023 message; ‘Peace is not only a noble vision for humanity. Peace is a call to action.’