Young people have a critical role in the development of policy affecting them, and on April 9th IPI held a policy forum on “Meaningful Inclusion of Young People as Drivers of Peace.” Co-sponsors of the event with IPI were the Office of the President of the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office, the UN Population Fund, Peace Direct, and Interpeace.
IPI Vice President Adam Lupel commended the new interest for including youth in policy-making by recalling past perceptions about the impact of young people on society. “Not that long ago, conversations around youth focused on the growing numbers of youth, particularly in the developing world, as a problem–a security problem that needed to be mitigated.” Now, he said, “what has become clear by the energetic participation of young people around the world on a whole host of issues is that young people do not simply represent the future. They are the present. They are showing leadership on many issues. They are not a problem for older people to solve, they are actively a part of the solution.”
UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés said that ahead of her presidency she had resolved to “do whatever I could to ensure that youth voices are not just heard but listened to in the halls and meeting rooms around the world.” She said that she was pursuing this goal with three principal thoughts in mind: 1 youth, peace and security must be “actively embraced” by all UN members; 2) we must change the narrative of youth; and 3) young people must be included in the decision-making.
She decried the fact that around the UN “youth perspectives are still viewed by some as something novel or nice to have rather than integral to discussion.”
Dereje Wordofa, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, listed five objectives of his agency’s engagement with youth: Supporting youth networks and organizations with their work on development, strengthening capacities of youth organizations, advocating for young people to be fully engaged, facilitating young people’s participation in human rights mechanisms, and ensuring access to sexual health education.
“The reform of the UN peace and security pillar as well as the development system give us a unique opportunity to reconfigure our engagement with young people, their organizations and networks. We should not miss this opportunity,” he said.
Speaking in French, Moussa Tolo, president of Allô Gouvernance, a youth-led organization that promotes peace and social cohesion said that in Mopti, in central Mali, where he works, 60% of the youth were “vulnerable” because they did not attend school, have jobs, or join the army. His organization worked to correct that, he said, by organizing community discussions to address local tensions, speaking to gatherings of young people about the importance of schooling, and exposing them to artists and rappers to promote cultural pride. “We think it is important to do everything possible to ensure these youth have access to education but also to jobs because when you are working, you do not have time to engage in these others types of marginal activities,” he said.
Vanessa Wyeth, Senior Political and Public Affairs Officer (Peacebuilding) of the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN, said that there was a valuable lesson to be learned from Mr. Tolo’s organization, which Canada funds. “We don’t have to build or find organizations to do this work, they are doing this work, and we need to get to them,” she said. “We put a lot of focus on top down peacebuilding at the UN, but there is much more than we can do to support bottom up work.”
Adil Skalli, Program Manager with the United Nations Association in Canada, said that one might wonder why Canada, a country at peace with significant youth participation, was a proper subject for this discussion. But he said the arguments being aired were relevant for Canada because of widespread economic inequality and the vulnerability of impoverished, refugee, immigrant, disabled, LGBT, indigenous, minority, and other marginalized communities. “Should Canada not address those groups, conflicts may arise in the future,” he said. In general, he added, “the overarching recognition amongst constituents in Canada is that working for peace at the individual, micro level is important before talking about a national level program or policy.”
Graeme Simpson, Principal US Representative and Senior Peacebuilding Adviser of Interpeace USA and Independent Lead Author of the Progress Study on Youth, Peace, and Security mandated by the Security Council, noted that young people themselves were the best commentators on the need for inclusion. “Young people were incredibly eloquent in describing the systemic integrated experiences of exclusion in their lives,” he said. “Young people were very clear on how the very gendered stereotypes when talking about peace and security–young men with guns, young women consigned to the passive status of victimhood–marginalized young people because it deprived them of their agency as progenitors of peace and saw young people instead as a problem.”
He said this reinforced false assumptions about youth, “assumptions that bulges in the youth population, youth migration, that all young people are in danger of joining extremist armed groups.” He said that this, in turn, drove the security approach to young people. “It is the investment in young people’s creative resilience that is about inclusion. The securitization and stereotypes, the policy myths of young people with which we exclude them are part of the problem.” He said young people had reason to distrust the sincerity of adult efforts to deal with them on an equal basis. “Young people talked about inclusion in critical ways,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘You are constantly talking about inviting us to sit at your table, and yet we’re sitting at our own tables. It is critical that you come to us.’”
Sima Sami Bahous, Permanent Representative of Jordan to the UN, contributed remarks, and Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, moderated the discussion.