You can now read 10 articles each month for free on BostonGlobe.com.

The Boston Globe

Opinion

NICHOLAS BURNS

Peacemakers, 2013

Melinda Gates is helping to change the face of global health by giving millions the chance for a better life.

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Melinda Gates is helping to change the face of global health by giving millions the chance for a better life.

A turbulent and all-too-violent 2013 across the globe illuminates just how far we are from the age-old dream of peace on earth as the holidays approach.

During this past year, the Middle East descended into a spiral of deeper instability and war in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. While the fighting in Congo has mercifully abated, new conflicts have arisen in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Ukraine, torn between Europe and Russia, appears perched on the edge of chaos. And Japan and China risk military conflict over small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Continue reading below

But there are millions of men and women, known and unknown, laboring in every corner of the world to right the wrongs, heal the wounds, and stop the wars that rage around us. Here are a few who made a positive difference against great odds this past year.

Valerie Amos and David Miliband: These two Brits are struggling to cope with the most urgent crisis in the world today — Syria. More than 9 million of Syria’s 22 million people are homeless inside or outside that ravaged country. As the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Amos announced earlier this week a new $13 billion appeal for refugees worldwide, $6.5 billion of which is to alleviate appalling conditions in Syria alone. Miliband is the former UK foreign secretary and new president of the International Rescue Committee, which is linking 1.4 million Syrians to urgently needed medical assistance. More will be needed as a polio outbreak, famine, and greater refugee numbers are on the horizon in 2014 as Syria’s savage civil war continues.

The Parent’s Circle Families Forum: This organization of more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost a loved one in the seemingly unending 65-year conflict has one overarching goal — reconciliation. They stand for “dialogue and the path to peace over violence and war.” Tempered by collective loss, this courageous group is a bright, if lonely, light in the bitter conflict afflicting the land holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

John Kerry and Cathy Ashton: Kerry has returned diplomacy to the forefront of US foreign policy by tackling with impressive energy and intellect three daunting Middle East issues — Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Ashton was appointed as the European Union’s foreign policy chief, critics said she was in over her head. But she has earned plaudits for her steady stewardship of the high-wire Iran negotiations and steely resolve in dealing with Ukraine’s retrograde leadership. Can she and Kerry reach a historic peace with Iran in 2014?

Malala Yousafzai: This young Pakistani teenager, victim of Taliban cruelty and intolerance, continues to advance with a clear moral voice the rights of girls and women to education and dignity across the Muslim world. She should have won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for her undaunted courage in standing up to barbarism in her native country.

Bill and Melinda Gates: They are changing the face of global health forever by giving millions of people, especially in Africa, the chance of a better life. Within reach is the eradication of polio and malaria in our lifetimes. They are also targeting the elimination of guinea worm, river blindness, dengue fever, and other diseases. And their work, along with that of the US government and other donors, is making major inroads in HIV infections and treatment.

Nelson Mandela and John F. Kennedy: In death, they remain insistent voices for peace. Mandela’s great legacy was his “Long Walk to Freedom.” The most respected global leader of the last quarter century, he gave his people, against all odds, a generation of peace. Kennedy is still, remarkably, part of our national conversation 50 years after his assassination. JFK believed, in the last year of his life following the near disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that, despite the violence and tragedy around us, we must still hold fast to the urgent, elusive, human dream: “Not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.”

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than $1 a week