Back to the Future: Can UNESCO’s New Recommendation on Education Bring Lasting Peace to the World?

Photo: Jean Bernard

By Jean Bernard

The Angel of Nagasaki, the only surviving fragment from a church reduced to rubble by the plutonium bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, watches silently over the Peace Garden at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Created by Japanese sculptor Nisaumu Niguchi, the Peace Garden now provides quiet space for visitors to contemplate whether, almost 80 years after the end of the most destructive war in human history, the world is any closer to ‘constructing the defences of peace’ in the minds of men and women, the core mandate of UNESCO. For many who regard her, the Angel is a poignant symbol of hope that the peoples of the world may one day live together in peace, justice, and dignity.

That enduring hope was refreshed in November, 2023 with the adoption by all 194 Member States of the Recommendation on Education for Peace, Human Rights and Sustainable Development informally known as the ‘2023 Recommendation’. Even as delegates to the 42nd session of the General Conference gathered to deliberate the draft of the Recommendation in the meeting rooms and hallways of ‘Maison de l’UNESCO’ in Paris, conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Africa continued to inflict unspeakable suffering on civilians while robbing thousands of children of their basic human rights, including to education. Video of the ongoing horror, broadcast from epicenters of these conflicts, created a sense of urgency and resolve, as had the state of the world in 1946 and 1974, to visualize a world at peace. The new Recommendation, a non-binding, global standard-setting instrument, lays out a broad conceptual foundation and a set of bold, specific actions aimed at strengthening the role of education in achieving this vision.

What’s old but still endures?

To fully grasp the aims, guiding principles, and areas of action set forth in the 2023 Recommendation, it is useful to time travel back to the early years of UNESCO’s work in education. Much of this work was grounded in the shared assumption, supported by contemporary research hat curriculum content and learning materials have a significant impact on how young people perceive the world and their place in it (Pingel, 2010). Textbooks, as the most visible component of a national curriculum, were regarded by many as vehicles for instilling racist, xenophobic propaganda or, alternatively, as learning media that could be shaped into tools for promoting peace through mutual understanding among peoples and nations). Resolutions[1], conferences, and research activities related to education were guided by the principles embedded in the UN Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In the postwar era, the vision of a world free from the scourge of violent conflict coupled with the universal affirmation of fundamental human rights and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person was to be achieved through international cooperation and friendship.

These enduring principles were reaffirmed in the drafting, almost 30 years later, of the Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ‘1974 Recommendation’ as it became known informally, was hailed by the international education community as exceptionally forward-looking for its time. Over the next five decades, it functioned as the primary standard-setting guide for UNESCO’s work on textbooks and learning materials, requesting national education authorities to ‘ensure that educational aids, especially textbooks, are free from elements liable to give rise to misunderstanding, mistrust, racialist reactions, contempt or hatred with regard to other groups or peoples.’ (1974 Recommendation, VIII/39)

Along with the evolving awareness of new priorities for achieving more just and equitable societies in following decades, a series of standard-setting instruments and intergovernmental initiatives were adopted, many of which have specific provisions for educational methods and materials, including but not limited to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1992), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), the World Programme for Human Rights Education (2004), the Declaration on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), and Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015). Many of the principles and lines of action embedded in each of these, together with multiple regional declarations and frameworks, fed into a two-year process beginning in 2021 with a mandate to update and revise the 1974 Recommendation.

What’s new?

With its thankfully abridged and streamlined title, the Recommendation on Education for Peace, Human Rights and Sustainable Development, adopted in November, 2023 presents a holistic vision for education as a life-long and life-wide process that integrates social and emotional learning, promotes peace and human rights, and equips learners with knowledge and skills for addressing the looming climate crisis. Most notably, the Recommendation states unequivocally that ‘there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development’. Similarly, the new Recommendation insists that, for education to succeed in transforming individual mindsets and subsequently whole societies, education must itself be transformed.

What will it take?

Like its predecessor, the 2023 Recommendation sets a high bar for the stewards of education processes, in moving from policy to practice. Unlike its predecessor, it requires a collaborative, whole-of-society approach to transforming all aspects of a system, including school management, teacher preparation, curriculum and materials, learning environments, and assessment. Echoing NISSEM’s mission to seamlessly integrate Sustainable Development Goal Target 4.7 themes[2] and social and emotional learning (SEL) into education materials, the Recommendation calls for the co-creation of quality teaching and learning materials that are designed to educate both the heart and the mind.

Moving forward, Member States are charged with engaging multiple stakeholders in the planning process and aligning the Recommendation’s action areas with national priorities, local histories and cultural contexts. A major part of the challenge here will be for national implementation plans in these action areas to bring ongoing and planned activities for improving the quality of education together under one expansive umbrella that holistically integrates the 2023 Recommendation and to activate these collaboratively at all levels and across all forms of learning (formal, nonformal, and informal).

Can the 2023 Recommendation on Education help foster peace and non-violence in the world?

In the words of the late peace educator, Betty Reardon, ‘we cannot achieve change unless we can think it.’ While the iconic Angel of Nagasaki can be regarded as both a beacon of warning and a symbol of hope, global consensus on the 2023 Recommendation signals a bold shift in direction. The revised and updated Recommendation challenges us to think and act upon the conviction that transformative education infused with the principles of peace, human rights, and sustainable development can create a critical mass of empathetic, skilled, and knowledgeable global and national citizens who are protagonists in shaping their own future. For the wellbeing of future generations and the health of the planet we share, we are compelled to move urgently in this direction.

[1] For example, 1 C/res.6: Improvement of textbooks and teaching materials, 1946.

[2] SDG Target 4.7 themes: ‘among others, education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and culture’s contribution to sustainable development.’

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