- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Most people know me as the former president of Finland and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for my work in seeking to resolve international conflicts.But long before I got involved in brokering peace deals, I was something else — a teacher. I learned some very important lessons about resolving conflict from children.

When I accepted the Nobel Peace Prize recently, an 11 year-old girl Matilde came up to the stage and asked me: “If everyone in the world was educated, do you think there would still be wars?” It is a very good, very difficult question. What is the answer? Then I thought of the children I met at a school in Sudan last year, how happy and positive they were to begin education after years of war had torn apart their country. I replied to Matilde with the only answer I know: “There is nothing more important than education.”

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Those early experiences as a teacher taught me that every teacher is in fact a peacemaker. Inside classrooms I have seen from Finland to Darfur, teachers are dealing with a microcosm of the outside world. They are resolving their own small-scale conflicts and - hopefully - instilling values of tolerance, respect and dialogue. As a teacher standing in front of a class, you have an enormous responsibility. Education can do a lot of good, but it can also cause a lot of harm.

In Rwanda before the genocide, some teachers turned their pupils against each other, telling them Tutsis were “snakes”: dangerous and to be killed. Children can be influenced by being shut out of the classroom too. Before Guatemala’s civil war, only 49 percent of children were finishing school and children in the indigenous population were particularly excluded. Five years later, partly as a result of this inequality, war broke out and indigenous peoples formed the main support base of guerrilla groups fighting the government.

What we teach children today, whether we include or exclude them from education, put simply this creates the blueprint for the society we will see in 10 or 20 years’ time. Children learn easily and they can learn either tolerance and equality or hatred, anger and violence.

So what is happening today? Too many conflicts recur time and again where the world simply isn’t serious about finding solutions or at least ensuring children’s basic rights. The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen further fighting in recent months and while it continues more than half its 10 million children are out of school, denied the chance to learn the skills they need to break the cycle of poverty and violence. Even where the numbers of children out of school do not number in the millions, what are children learning in the classroom? Are children learning peace and tolerance in Gaza and in Israel?

Some of the best opportunities we have to create the blueprint for better education come in fact during peace processes themselves. These intense periods of negotiation about the future of a country are unique times to set change in motion. And when peace agreements are successful, crucially they are often followed by money: foreign aid that can implement improved education and other public services. Yet when you examine peace agreements signed since the end of the Cold War, 30 percent make no mention of education at all while others are patchy or insufficient.

Peace negotiations are by no means easy opportunities. The focus of a peace agreement is often on the “harder” questions of political power-sharing or who controls the army and security services. Education and children’s issues are too often squeezed off the negotiating table. But there are solutions where governments invest the resources and the political will.

The 1995 peace agreement in Guatemala is one of the best to address education, making it more inclusive and introducing bilingual and intercultural education to bring different ethnic groups together. In Afghanistan, school enrollment since 2002 has shot up faster than in any other country - because there is serious international attention and the funds are there.

I support the Save the Children’s efforts this month to raise awareness with global leaders about the urgent need to help the millions of children not able to go to school because of emergencies. On Thursday, Save the Children is holding an international conference in Sarajevo on the role of education in lasting peace followed by a United Nations General Assembly on March 18 to begin formal debate on the importance of providing education to children in emergencies.

We have a choice today to create stability or divisions in the future, to decide if we want today’s children to be tomorrow’s generation of warmakers or peacemakers. I would gladly give back every prize I have received in return for the latter.

Martti Ahtisaari is the former president of Finland and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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