21 April, 2017

The historian who mistook a history museum for a natural history museum

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Category: Human Rights, sustainable development, UNESCO
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(Photo copyright: CCUNESCO)

…and other highlights from the UNESCO Week for Peace and Sustainable Development

by Artemis Papatheodorou

In her defense, the historian only got a glimpse of a hall during a buzzing cocktail reception at the Canadian Museum of History. In that hall, the material culture of the First Peoples of Canada was so well integrated in the reconstructed natural environment that what left a dominant impression was the huge trees overcastting the visitors’ paths, those trees that in the past would have provided logs for the boats and gigantic totems of the Aboriginals that were exhibited in the museum. Earlier on that day, an Indigenous Elder had extended a warm welcome to the participants, and a Maori lady representative from New Zealand a traditional prayer for the success of the conference. Definitely, the UNESCO Week for Peace and Sustainable Development, which was jointly organised by UNESCO and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO from 6 to 10 March 2017 in Ottawa, made an effort to incorporate the many voices that advocate for a different relation between humans and the natural environment.

In Europe, we focus our understanding of nature on our well-being and ability for economic development, and tend to consider human rights as distinct from, if not superior to, broader issues of sustainable development. This is a human centered approach. However, there are countries and communities that challenge this understanding. For example, New Zealand recently acknowledged its third-largest river legal status as a living entity. “We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe. […] And therefore rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief”, said Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Maori tribe involved in this legal battle, to The Guardian on the occasion.


At the TAGe event (copyright: CCUNESCO)

The link between human rights and sustainable development was one of the important topics discussed in the Conference. Another one may sound more familiar: youth participation. UNESCO, in collaboration with the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), invited 50 youth delegates from around the world to join the conference. In a world, which is home to about 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 – the largest youth population ever according to the United Nations – youth participation is all the more meaningful. Even in Europe, with its ageing population, young people are faced with increasing challenges and responsibilities. We need to ensure that their voice is heard, and that they are given the opportunity to shape their future. MGIEP ensured that in Ottawa already from the selection process, which was based on one’s active participation in online debates. Once in Canada, youth delegates were invited to join the plenary sessions and workshops organised for all participants, while other workshops were specially designed for them only. There were plenty of networking opportunities. More importantly, a Talking Across Generations (TAGe) event brought youth delegates together with policy-makers and senior officials with a view to discussing the role of teachers in peace and sustainable development.


After the TAGe event (copyright: CCUNESCO)

In June, the Council of Europe is organising a conference on the future of citizenship and human rights education, and has invited youth delegates, including children under 18. The inclusion of children and youth in the deliberations is promising. Really, do NGOs in Europe follow the same path? How do we enable youth to express their voice, and how do we incorporate this in our actions? Already a decade ago, UNICEF compiled a resource guide on children and youth participation. In it, one can find information on how to include children and youth in project cycles, programme areas, and in political decision-making. Since that time, much research has been done, trial-and-error-based lessons have been learned, and much more material has been made available online for anyone interested in this topic. Are you interested?

Alright, do not talk with your rivers (yet) but do talk with your youth!


For more information, check out these resources:

Child and Youth Participation Resource Guide”, UNICEF

Learning to Live Together: A Shared Commitment to Democracy”, Conference on the Future of Citizenship and Human Rights Education in Europe, 20-22 June 2017, Council of Europe

Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Peace and Sustainable Development

New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being”, The Guardian, 16 March 2017

UNESCO Week for Peace and Sustainable Development”, UNESCO

10 things you didn’t know about the world’s population”, Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth

Artemis Papatheodorou was one of the youth delegates at the UNESCO Week for Peace and Sustainable Development 2017. She is a Programme Officer with a specialisation in human rights at Bodossaki Foundation (Greece), and is currently finishing her PhD in Ottoman history at the University of Oxford.  

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