Two days ago, the world celebrated its 34th International Day of Peace. Two days from now, leaders from around the globe will gather at the United Nations and pledge their commitment to 17 Sustainable Development Goals, among them, Goal 16, promoting peace and justice. This week, then, is a perfect occasion for us to reflect on a concept that we all strive toward but whose true meaning often escapes us.
We usually think and talk about peace as the absence of bad things. Peace is a lack of war. Peace is a lack of violence. But true peace isn't just the absence of bad; it is the presence of good. Peace is people having their most-basic human needs met. Peace is people exchanging knowledge and ideas. Peace is people sharing an abiding and mutual respect. Peace is people working together toward a common goal.
On the surface, this might seem like a small, semantic distinction. But, in practice, the difference between a negative peace -- the absence of bad -- and a positive peace -- the presence of good -- carries enormous consequences.
Over the past 10 years, I've worked with hundreds of former child soldiers. I've seen firsthand that, for these young men and women who have been forced to commit some of the most brutal atrocities imaginable, it is not enough to simply remove the violence from their lives. We can take a young man out of an army, but unless we fill that void with something positive -- with an education, a job, a community -- he is not truly free. He is still a soldier at heart, and when the next conflict breaks out five or 10 years in the future, he will be among the first recruited back to the battlefield.
For these children -- and in the world around us -- building a lasting peace requires not only that we end conflicts and violence, but that we build societies that allow all women and men to learn freely, to become active participants in their local economies, and, most importantly, to feel safe in their homes and villages.
This principle is especially relevant in South Sudan, a country that has been at the forefront of my thoughts recently. A few weeks ago, the South Sudanese government and rebel forces finally signed a peace agreement after a 20-month civil war that has resulted in an unbearable amount of human suffering -- tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of approximately 2.2 million people. This peace agreement is an important step in the right direction, and all of us in the international community hope that both sides honor its terms. But even this cessation of violence is no guarantee of a true peace.
The agreement makes me optimistic that the people of South Sudan will soon have some relief from this terrible conflict, but what truly gives me hope for that nation's future are the remarkable young women and men I've met and worked with there. I've spoken with youths at the protection-of-civilians camp in the capital city of Juba who, in spite of all they've been through, speak with such unwavering passion about working together to rebuild their country. I've met teachers who have told me how excited they are to finish their training and go back to their communities and help ensure that every child in South Sudan receives the education she or he deserves. I have seen women and men reaching across ethnic lines to warn others of danger and coming together to advocate for non-violence and reconciliation.
That is what true peace -- a positive peace -- entails. All of these young women and men have identified some need in their communities, and they have been working in whatever way they can, despite the violence, to fill that need. Their courage is an example for us all.
Not just in South Sudan, but in every country around the world -- even those that are technically devoid of armed conflict -- there are basic human needs going unmet. In Mexico, gangs and cartels are steering youths away from school and jobs. In Uganda, women and men are struggling to break out of vicious cycles of unemployment and alcoholism. In the United States, a young African-American man is 21 times more likely to be killed by police than a young white man. These are symptoms of societies that are still struggling to attain true peace.
The Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative works in nations impacted by conflict and poverty to empower youths to become agents of positive change in their communities. Our mission is to identify passionate young women and men who have demonstrated a commitment to making a difference, and to connect these individuals to each other so that they can confront the challenges facing their communities together. Collaborating with Ericsson, Zain, UNESCO, and others, we provide these young leaders with training in peace-building, conflict mediation, and project management, and then support them as they work together to design and implement projects that make a positive impact in their cities and neighborhoods.
We are fortunate to be living at a time when creating these coalitions of like-minded women and men and rallying support for a common cause are easier than ever before. The Internet and social media give all of us a microphone that allows us to speak out against injustice wherever we see it, and to build movements that shape the universe we want to give to our children.
Building peace is not only the responsibility of presidents, parliaments, and the United Nations. We can all ask ourselves what challenges our own communities face, and how we can work together to bring peace and goodness into the lives of those around us. Even a seemingly small action -- teaching a child to read, giving a hungry person something to eat, or simply listening to a friend who needs help -- can cause ripples that make a big impact.
In the words of Desmond Tutu, one of the world's great champions for peace, "Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."
As international leaders meet this week to declare their support for global peace and development, may our own acts of goodness come together to create a positive peace that will overwhelm the world.
Forest Whitaker is a UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation and the founder and CEO of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative. Learn more about the author on his website, Twitter and Facebook.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 16.