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A letter from Iceland


Peace Direct co-founder, Scilla Elworthy , and our Sri Lankan partner, Dishani Jayaweera, recently traveled to a peace conference in Iceland. Here they share what they learnt.

  • Published

    30 April 2014
  • Written by

    Scilla Elworthy and Dishani Jayaweera

Great things are happening here in Iceland. On 9-12 April, 230 remarkable people from the global North and South gathered in Reykjavik to share actions for effective change on the issue of ‘The Power of Love and Compassion in Governance’. Iceland is consistently rated the most peaceable of all countries in the world in the Global Peace Index.

Peace Direct’s Sri Lankan partner Dishani Jayaweera attended, courtesy of contributions from Quaker funds in Burford. Dishani described the violence and injustice in her country, which led her to set up the Center for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR) in 2003, with her life partner Jayantha. They believe that change has to come from the bottom up as well as the top down. So CPBR is working with young people and religious leaders to identify, accept, respect and nourish diversity in Sri Lanka. It reaches out to all of the religious groups in Sri Lanka – Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, Muslim Islamic, and Tamil and Sinhalese Christians – and has set up six interfaith dialogue centres in key areas.

Those who heard Dishani’s personal story were deeply moved. Dishani herself felt encouraged and hopeful, because of the way that compassion is being recognised at new levels as a driving force for a more peaceful world. She took on the task of a group blog after the conference, on transforming political systems by extending new values to a larger audience. Coming from a militarised society, she said she felt safe in Iceland, as well as experiencing her first snowstorm….

Dishani was accompanied by Peace Direct co-founder Scilla Elworthy, who was asked how the power of love and compassion can be increased in the world. She said that those who are willing to stand up and speak out for love and compassion tend to be female. Women work 66% of the world’s working hours, yet earn only 10% of the world’s income. They are responsible for producing 60-80% of the world’s food, yet hold only 10% of the world’s wealth – and own only 1% of the world’s land. Only 7% of negotiators at peace tables are female, meaning that the suffering of the majority of victims of armed violence is not represented. So there is an urgent need for the large numbers of qualified women to be moved into policy-making positions.

What did Dishani and Scilla learn?

  • Iceland has reduced its military expenditure to zero, with no armed forces, but remaining a member of NATO.
  • In 2008 an out-of-control banking system sank Iceland into financial meltdown, but while other governments bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net.
  • Police in Stockholm now use dialogue methods to prevent or quell urban violence, instead of heavy-handed anti-terror tactics. This approach has been successfully adopted as a result of the Gothenburg riots.
  • 10% of schools in Iceland and 10% in UK have now adopted ‘values-based education’. The staff  have to model these values. Three cities in the UK now want to become ‘values-based cities’. The Barrett Values Centreis an international organisation with a network of consultants and change agents distributed across the world.  As of January 2010, there were approximately 2,600 accredited users of their Cultural Transformation Toolsin over 60 countries.
  • China sent 60 scientists to Iceland to investigate melting of arctic sea ice because of massive environmental destruction in northern China. “The ice is teaching us a new view – perhaps the most profound messenger of our time, destroying the lives of millions worldwide.”
  • A message from Prince Charles spoke about “the spiritual poverty of affluence”, saying that “healing our disconnection is of paramount importance”.
  • In addition to being both Iceland and Europe’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the world’s first democratically elected female head of state, back in 1980. Serving as president for 16 years, she remains the longest-serving, elected female head of state of any country to date. She said, “I’m a woman who never tried to become a man.” Now aged 84, she is still a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.



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