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The fifth edition of the Geneva Peace Talks were held on September 21 at the Palais des Nations to celebrate the International Day of Peace. The event was organized under the theme “Building Bridges” and brought together a diverse group of speakers that highlighted the importance of working together to generate common understandings and solutions to build peace.

Through the personal experiences of a former American neo-Nazi, a Colombian General, a Canadian Journalist, a South Korean violinist and a former UN Secretary General, amongst many others, the event shed light on the importance of working together to achieve long lasting peace.

Speakers at the Geneva Peace Talks 2017. Photo credit: Antoine Tardy for Interpeace

Christian Picciolini, “ex neo-Nazi turned hate breaker,” opened the event with a powerful story of transformation and hope. Christian Picciolini shared his experience leaving the American hate movement that he helped build in the eighties and nineties and described how he went on to become a respected peace advocate. In his talk, Christian explained that radicalization and extremism largely result from a broken sense of identity, community and purpose.

Azra Hadzic, an architect from Bosnia and Herzegovina, spoke about her work on the reconstruction of the Mostar Bridge and the importance of protecting cultural heritage in times of war. She expressed how the literal meaning of building bridges also has a symbolic meaning in the reconciliation of communities after war.

Former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan was interviewed by Ahmad Fawsi, former Communication Advisor and Chief Spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Refugees. During the interview, Kofi Annan spoke about his constant fight for peace across the world and shared his ideas and tips for successful peace negotiations: “One must understand the concerns of the people living in conflict. The mediator must listen in order to help and never go in with preconceived ideas.”

Kofi Annan. Photo credit: Antoine Tardy for Interpeace

South Korean violinist and peace activist Hyung Joon Won gave a moving performance and afterwards spoke about the power of music to heal and create harmony: “Peace is harmony. When different sounds and instruments are able to make beautiful sounds, we can feel peace.” Hyung Joon Won went on to express his efforts to reconcile differences between North and South Korea through the power of music.

Brigadier General Pico Malaver of the Colombian National Police spoke about his 33-year career working in the police force, his experiences living through years of conflict and his involvement in the peace talks in Havana with FARC. BG Pico Malaver was keen to emphasize that reconciliation is possible, no matter what the circumstances might be. “I have seen what it has meant to end a conflict. We see a great reduction in the number of victims…I can tell you that it is possible. Reconciliation is possible.”

Sihem Bensedrine, President of the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia, spoke about her experience building peace in her country by shedding light to the violent acts of the past and assuring that there is no repetition: “Through the Truth and Dignity Commission we are giving Tunisians hope for the future.”

Sihem Bensedrine. Photo credit: Antoine Tardy for Interpeace

Sonja Stojanović Gajić, the Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, a leading Western Balkan security think tank, spoke about her path towards research on security, which can help create knowledge and understanding to reconcile communities after war. She described how first-hand research and information from opposing parties are necessary to build sustainable peace.

Hassan Ismail, the focal person for Interpeace’s Kenya Programme in Mandera County, talked about his life journey experiencing clan conflict in his childhood, becoming a teacher and now working as a peacebuilder. Hassan invited viewers to look beyond the two sides of the coin and looking at the third side to learn to trust each other, particularly in areas of conflict in order to build peace in our communities.

Dan Stein from Cuisine Lab began his talk by asking the audience to stand up and introduce themselves to a stranger, arguing that “this is how we build community.” Dan was accompanied by Saba Temelso, a refugee from Eritrea who has been living in Geneva for over 5 years. Together, they described how food and sharing a meal can have the power to bring people together, strengthening diversity and inclusion in a community: “Our goal is to build a longer table, not a higher wall.”

Dan Stein & Saba Temelso. Photo credit: Antoine Tardy for Interpeace

Lastly, Director of Irin News, Heba Aly, described the importance of empathy and how journalism plays a key role in addressing our differences and on shedding light on what binds us together: “It is easier to hate someone or kill someone if you don’t know them. Journalism can help build empathy.”

Through these personal stories of transformation, reconciliation and courage, this year’s Geneva Peace Talks speakers inspired the audience, near and far, to reach out and play an active role in their communities, and build bridges of inclusion and hope.

Watch the full event here.

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