Rotary fosters understanding across cultures. We train adults and young leaders to prevent and mediate conflict and help refugees who have fled dangerous areas.

Promoting Peace: Rotary’s peacebuilding history around the world

From a pre-World War I resolution calling for “the maintenance of peace” to our continuing support for Rotary Peace Centers, Rotary and its members have a long history of promoting peace and working to address the underlying causes of conflict in communities around the world.

Lending our influence

Rotarians from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, proposed before the 1914 Rotary Convention that the International Association of Rotary Clubs (now Rotary International) “lend its influence to the maintenance of peace among the nations of the world.” Delegates at the convention, which took place just weeks before Europe became engulfed in war, agreed.

It was a bold statement for a relatively young organization that had become international only two years earlier and had a presence in just a handful of countries.

Chester Williams, a British expert on Anglo-American relations, answers questions from high school students during an Institute of International Understanding event in Michigan, USA, circa 1943.

 

The Objects of Rotary

With memories of the Great War fresh in their minds, delegates to the 1921 convention in Edinburgh, Scotland, amended the association’s constitution to include the goal “to aid in the advancement of international peace and goodwill through a fellowship of business and professional men of all nations united in the Rotary ideal of service.”

Delegates to the 1922 convention made sweeping changes to the Rotary International and club constitutions. Separate objectives for each were replaced with the Objects of Rotary (now called the Object of Rotary). The new approach, however, retained the vision for peace.

Institutes of International Understanding

An early effort to achieve this objective involved Rotarians in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, who organized a program in 1934 to encourage and foster international understanding. It included 11 days of public community meetings, bringing in prominent authors, economists, scientists, politicians, and commentators to discuss issues such as the economy, world peace, and scientific advances.

The idea, which came to be known as Institutes of International Understanding, was well-received, and in 1936, Rotary International suggested that other Rotary clubs emulate it. While clubs were responsible for arranging local institutes, The Rotary Foundation helped pay for speakers’ expenses beyond what clubs could afford. Over the next decade, 965 clubs in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand sponsored hundreds of institutes that drew thousands of people eager to learn more about the world beyond their own borders.

World War II

During World War II, Rotary members looked for ways to create a stable and peaceful world. In 1940, convention delegates adopted a statement, Rotary Amid World Conflict, which emphasized that “where freedom, justice, truth, sanctity of the pledged word, and respect for human rights do not exist, Rotary cannot live nor its ideal prevail.” Walter D. Head, then Rotary International’s president, remarked that there must be a better way to settle international differences than violence and called on Rotarians to find it.

"Peace Is a Process,” a 1944 compilation of articles from The Rotarian magazine, focused on the new opportunities for international cooperation that would appear when the war ended. In “Setting the Pattern for Peace,” historian and diplomat James Shotwell explained the differences between the failed League of Nations and the approach taken to form the United Nations.


 

The Rotarian magazine ran essays by authors, politicians, and other well-known figures that encouraged discussion on the topic of peace. Rotary published collections of these essays as “A World to Live In” (1942) and “Peace Is a Process” (1944). Recognizing that the end of the war didn’t eliminate the need to discuss these topics, Rotary continued the series with “Peace Demands Action” in 1947.

The United Nations

Rotary was present at the start of the United Nations in 1945. Rotary International was one of 42 organizations invited to serve as consultants to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, California, USA (commonly called the UN charter conference). Additionally, many Rotary members and honorary members from around the world attended the conference as members of and consultants to their nations’ delegations.

Rotary and the United Nations remain committed to creating lasting change that enhances international relationships, improves lives and communities, and creates a more peaceful world.

Today, Rotary International holds the highest consultative status offered to a nongovernmental organization by the UN’s Economic and Social Council (UNESCO). The Rotary Representative Network, established in 1991, maintains and furthers this relationship with several UN bodies, programs, commissions, and agencies.

Scholarships

Rotary founder Paul Harris recognized the connection between international understanding and peace. In a message to the 1921 convention, Harris had written, “Rotary believes that the better the people of one nation understand the people of other nations, the less the likelihood of friction, and Rotary will therefore encourage acquaintance and friendships between individuals of different nations.”

Scholarships for graduate study in other countries became the first program of The Rotary Foundation in 1947. The idea of sending a student abroad for at least a year of university study was part of an effort to encourage higher education and promote greater understanding between people of different cultures and nationalities.

After Harris’ death that year, donations to The Rotary Foundation (Harris had requested them in lieu of flowers) began flooding in to Rotary headquarters. The Paul Harris Memorial Fund was designated for the newly created scholarship program.

Called the Paul Harris Foundation Fellowships For Advanced Study, it supported 18 scholars in its first year. Later it became known as the Ambassadorial Scholarships and lasted until 2013, when graduate-level scholarships were incorporated into district and global grants.

Peace Forums

To raise awareness about issues that cause conflict and activities that promote peace, Rotary created Peace Forums as a three-year pilot program. Rotary leaders and invited guests explored topics such as “Nongovernmental Organizations and the Search for Peace” at the first Peace Forum held in 1988 in Evanston, Illinois, USA.

In 1990, the Trustees of The Rotary Foundation broadened the program and changed the name to Rotary Peace Programs.

Rotary Peace Centers

At various times, Rotary members had proposed creating a university to promote peace, but the concept never seemed feasible. In the 1990s, Rotary leaders were inspired by the 50th anniversary of Harris’ death to consider an alternate approach.

The idea was simple, but the impact would be tremendous: Rotary would encourage people already engaged in peacebuilding as a career to apply for graduate-level study in the field, and The Rotary Foundation would provide scholarships to peace fellows that would allow them to enroll in established peace programs at existing universities.

Rotary approved the creation of Rotary Peace Centers program in 1999, and the inaugural class of Rotary Peace Fellows began their studies in 2002.

Rotary Peace Centers, located at universities around the world, develop leaders who become catalysts for peace in local communities and on the global stage. They study the causes of conflict and build practical skills exploring innovative solutions to real-world problems in areas such as human rights, international relations, and global health and development.

Rotary is not a university and yet it has an educational task to perform, and that task is to divert the world mind to thoughts of friendly cooperation. — Arch Klumph, father of The Rotary Foundation, in a speech to the 1921 convention

Peace for all time

Rotary’s goal today is to create environments where peace can be built and maintained through sustainable and measurable activities in communities worldwide. Peacebuilding remains a cornerstone of our mission as a humanitarian service organization.

 
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