Students Attend Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates

By Ali Toth

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A  group of District 219 students enrolled in the English elective Literature of Peace and Nonviolence attended the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates on Monday, April 23, where they were able to listen to former Nobel Peace Prize winners discuss current issues in the world.  

The yearly summit was started in 1999 as a way for Nobel Peace Prize laureates to help promote peace and encourage people to start initiatives towards it. The invited speakers also talk about current world events and prompt young people to get involved in peaceful efforts. This year’s summit, which took place from April 23 to April 25 and was held at the UIC Forum, was the first summit held in North America. The hosting city is picked for how well it relates to that year’s summit theme.

Students from various Chicago area schools were invited to attend this year’s summit, which was considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Students from District 219’s Literature of Peace and Nonviolence class were chosen to attend the Monday session because District 219 is one of the few districts in the area that offers a peace class. Other Chicago schools were chosen because they have begun teaching a peace-related curriculum. The summit was also webcast to various classrooms.

This year’s summit theme was “Speak Up, Speak Out for Freedom & Rights.” It stressed the importance that the internet now has in relation to peace efforts, therefore making it easier for everybody to get involved in peace movements. There was also focus on how now it is easier for teenagers to get involved.

Monday was the opening day of the summit, which was kicked off by a speech by Chicago mayor,Rahm Emanuel. Kerry Kennedy (daughter of Robert F. Kennedy) also gave a speech because she is one of the founders of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice, which is a human rights organization that helped to sponsor the summit. Also during the introduction was a performance from members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which highlighted the various laureates who were going to speak at the summit; a speech from Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace laureate known for her opposition to antipersonnel landmines; a video speech from President Barack Obama; and a video message from the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. Actor Sean Penn was noted for having won the 2012 Peace Summit Award, which is given to a celebrity who has done an outstanding job defending human rights or spreading messages of peace. Towards the end of the introduction, one of the day’s highlighted speakers, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a speech as well.

The biggest event of the day was the panel discussion “New Challenges for Peace,” which featured four Nobel Peace laureates. The laureates who participated were Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Frederik Willem de Klerk, and Lech Walesa. Also scheduled to speak was Oscar Arias Sanchez, a former president of Costa Rica, but he was not present. The discussion was led by Chris Jansing, host of the program “Jansing and Co.” on MSNBC.

Carter, president of the U.S. from 1977 to 1981, won the prize in 2002 for how he handled many issues during his presidency. These things include the Panama Canal treaties, the Camp David Accords, working on a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, working on the SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, and creating diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Gorbachev won the prize in 1990. From 1988 to 1991, he had served as the last president of the Soviet Union. He used the policies of perestroika and glasnost in an attempt to radically change the Soviet Union. Because of this, Gorbachev is credited with helping to end the Soviet Union in 1991, and therefore also ended the Cold War. His actions also helped to reunify Germany in 1990.

De Klerk, who won the prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993, was the president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994. He helped to end apartheid in South Africa, which had been an extreme system of racial segregation that lasted from 1948 to 1994. In December 1993, de Klerk helped South Africa to adopt a new constitution.

Lech Walesa, who won in 1983, was the president of Poland from 1990 to 1995. He helped create the first trade union in Soviet-controlled Poland, though he was arrested many times for doing so. He was president of the trade union, and when it was outlawed, he was arrested again. After, he became the leader of an opposition group that held talks with the Soviet Union, which eventually led to partially free parliament elections. In 1990, he became president of Poland. During his presidency, the Soviet Union fell apart, and Walesa was noted for helping Poland to become a successful post-communist country.

Topics that were discussed were how teenagers are also able to change the world, how the government seems to be much more resorted to conflict than peace, the U.S.’s role in world events, current problems in the government, and the importance of technology in today’s peace efforts. The speakers also answered some questions from the audience, which audience members had written down on index cards before the program.

“Humans need to say, ‘War comes last, peace comes first,'” said Carter in regards to how conflict is mostly responded to today.

Gorbachev agreed. Through a translator, he said, “Thousands of tanks cannot solve problems…people want change and it isn’t happening…there is now a greater need to make a difference.”

When it came to youth participating in peace efforts, Gorbachev said that the right of people to peacefully protest needs to be preserved. He added that youth should not be patted on the back or controlled, nor should they do other people’s bidding. Gorbachev pointed out that only in a democratic setting can youth move forward and debate.

De Klerk agreed, urging youth to get involved and mobilized; however, he cautioned, “Don’t glorify protest for the sake of protest.”

There was also some observation to how peace efforts have changed since the laureates’ time. Carter noted that because of today’s technology, a singular leader is not needed. Through a translator, Walesa also said that courage is not as needed anymore, that we need to organize ourselves better instead.

Other Nobel Peace laureates who were invited to speak throughout the three day event were the Dalai Lama, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, and Mohammad Yunus. Thirteen Nobel Peace organizations were also invited, as well as six different moderators.