Actor and United Nations agency special envoy Forest Whitaker has been celebrated as a leader in peacebuilding and conflict-resolution, empowering young people in communities touched by violence and poverty.

UN agency envoy Forest Whitaker honoured at the 47th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland
UN agency envoy Forest Whitaker honoured at the 47th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland

Mr. Whitaker, who is the Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), received the 2017 Crystal Award at the opening of the 47th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

“Throughout history and throughout times, it’s groups that push things forward,” Mr. Whitaker said in April and May of last year when he sat down in a number of interviews with UN News to discuss his work as it relates to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for which he advocates.

“When you look at what these Goals are, we’re seeing actually a list of needs of our society. A list of needs that need to be fulfilled in order for us to move forward,” he said of the anti-poverty goals. “I can relate a lot of times through the work I do in conflict resolution, in recognizing that when needs are not filled or not met, that all types of conflicts occur. And unless we’re able to do that, our planet itself will implode because the needs of the people are not met.”

To achieve the SDGs by the 2030 deadline, Mr. Whitaker stressed the importance of “common people” being empowered to act: “People themselves have to push forward… They need to have empowerment to know that they actually can make a difference and make a change.”

But for people to act, he continued, they need strong leaders who will inspire and point the way.

Mr. Whitaker can be considered one such person. To achieve his ideals of peace, he founded the International Institute for Peace (IIP) in 2011, and one year later, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI). The institutions are, respectively, dedicated to conflict transformation through non-violence, and to providing capacity-building, resources and opportunities to young women and men in Mexico, South Sudan and Uganda.

In South Sudan, for example, the institutions over the past three years educated a group of young people to act as conflict mediators who now work alongside state officials. Mr. Whitaker and his partners also built literacy centres, which he said are used “from kids to grandparents” to learn to read and to gain computer literacy. Programs are also defusing intercommunal tensions, such as between pastoral and nomad tribes brought together to build roads.

“What affects you, affects me,” the Academy Award-winning actor said. "This is what people are trying to achieve all over the world. They thought [the problems] were [far away] from them, but those problems arrived at their doors.

He discussed the plight of refugees around the world, with more than 60 million people forced to flee their homes amid gun fire and bombs. Experts believe they could be displaced and/or on the move for some 17 years.

“These people have no place to go. This affects us all,” he continued. “Together, we can find solutions to some of the problems we face on the planet.”

Mr. Whitaker is one of three recipients to receive the 2017 Crystal Award, along with singer/songwriter, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Goodwill Ambassador Shakira and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

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