by Leo Guardado, El Salvador/USA
Ambassador Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary General, addressed the 2014 IPSI Bologna Symposium on the first formal day of our month-long training. Though he provided an overview of the various facets of mediation, the Ambassador focused most especially on why mediators either fail or succeed in their endeavors through reference to four categories which determine success or failure in mediation: (1) Words (2) Timing (3) Cultural Sensitivity (4) Personal Relations. To me, the first of these categories, the importance of words, resonated the most.
From an early age Amb. Eliasson had developed sensitivity to words, especially from his father. Surprisingly, he is the first in his family to graduate from high school. His professional achievements on the international stage, as grand and unique as they may seem, find their source in the humble pillars of a wholesome education based above all on a love of words.
“Temper and love the language… find joy in synonyms, find the art of words. Love words,” he told us. Amb. Eliasson described himself as a “collector of words” and considers words to be the most important tool in his professional life. “Words can open and close doors,” he said, “they can kill or save lives.” As a tool in a peacebuilder’s toolkit, words can serve to create a more peaceful world, or they can drive whole societies into chaos and destruction.
In the realpolitik paradigm in which the western world primarily operates, words may seem weak when faced with the barrel of a rifle and with the “real” power that seems to drive the world around. Perhaps there is a weakness in words, a fragility, or an ephemeral reality that transcends the materiality of our traditional understanding of power. Still yet, the diversity and adaptability of words, the nuances that lie in their conjugations, the constructs to which they give rise, the honesty that they can convey, and the healing that they can bring, point to a different kind of power that is limitless in possibilities.
It is astonishing that the very first tools of education most of us learned– letters and words– have the possibility to become the fundamental instruments for a new paradigm of peace based on genuine diplomacy instead of weapons. While educational systems around the world continue to become specialized in order to serve very particular industries, we cannot forego the value of a basic education that teaches students to think and write critically. If we want our societies to produce peacemakers, perhaps governments need to invest more in good teachers and schools that can inspire a love of words and the depths they can convey.
Fostering a love of words may provide the promise of a future where anyone, especially individuals from humble backgrounds, perhaps even the first in their families to receive a formal education, can become international servants of peace.