Amid growing global concerns of terrorism, conflict, and crime, young people are frequently considered a problem or a risk factor, and, as a result, are often excluded from institutions and marginalized from peacebuilding processes.
This phenomenon and ways to address it were the theme of the 49th IPI Vienna Seminar held on June 12th in partnership with the Austrian Federal Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense. IPI Vice President Adam Lupel opened the discussion by saying that “young people do not simply represent the future, they are the present.” He also noted that the seminar fell on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations in Vienna and provided an opportunity to reflect on the unique contributions of Vienna Based Organizations to the Youth, Peace, and Security agenda.
Martin Nesirky, Director of the UN Information Service in Vienna, said that despite the fact that Vienna Based Organizations such as the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), focus on prevention, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the common thread between Vienna and New York. This thread “runs through everything that we’re trying to do in our work on raising the visibility of the Vienna Based Organizations this year,” he said.
Keynote speaker Samuel Goda, Special Representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairperson-in-Office on Youth and Security, said that portraying youth as a challenge “is a myth and wrong assumption. At the end of the day, we cannot demonize young people [but] we should also not idealize them. Violent youth identities, however, are more often systematically shaped from above. It is primarily governments and political leaders who seek to mobilize, and often to manipulate, the role and function of youth for political ends.”
He proposed three steps in advancing a global Youth, Peace, and Security agenda—investing in young people’s capacities, eliminating structural barriers that limit youth participation, and establishing partnerships and collaboration “where young people are viewed as equal and essential partners for peace.”
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Director of the Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs of the UNODC, emphasized how we must debunk the assumption that youth are inherently violent. “Fragility by itself is not necessarily an open door towards criminality… There is no country in the world which does not have crime.” What matters instead, he said, is the resilience of the country. “If people have no way of getting their entrepreneurial energy in a direct manner involved in helping the country move forward in ways we all would prefer, then we have definitely work at hand. And as you can see, we do have a lot of work, I can tell you. And the biggest stakeholders are undoubtedly the young people.”
Participants in the discussion said that obstacles to youth engagement included lack of political will, gender discrimination, and insufficient funding. One youth representative said that there were not enough forums where young people could meet up, and that they felt excluded from political decision-making. Participants explained that youth and government authorities often have a relationship of mutual distrust. They pointed out that when a country is in a fragile period, its youth may be seen as vulnerable to joining a violent gang.
Creative solutions to these challenges should be found by addressing unfulfilled needs, participants said. Why, for example, might young people feel the need to join a gang? If they are seeking a sense of belonging, introducing sports could be a positive solution, one participant explained. Panelists spoke further on how to strengthen youth expertise and increase youth political participation by investing in programs such as Model UN to involve young people at all levels in discussing conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
Exclusion itself is a form of violence, discussants noted, and to counter it, we must listen to the diverse viewpoints of young women and men and not only amplify those of the elite youth who are already engaged in conversations around peacebuilding. To better integrate youth, they recommended increasing opportunities for young workers, and partnering with young people to make policy decisions. It was noted that young people are “multipliers” in that they bring positive examples back to their communities.
Young people can engage in important dialogue to fight corruption, organized crime, and terrorism, and work towards building more peaceful, just, strong institutions as long as their ideas are heard. This can happen through enhanced investment in their education, including their viewpoints, clear two-way communication, improving media skills, focus on increasing women’s involvement, and efforts to build youth networks.
The seminar’s final panel featured four young practitioners working to build and sustain peace in different regions and country contexts. IPI Senior Policy Analyst Lesley Connolly asked the panel about their personal experiences, motivations, challenges, and to share practical ways to support young people in preventing violence, crime, and corruption and fostering security.
Nour Barakeh, Collaborator on the SDG 5 Thrive! Project, said one drawback in peacebuilding work is that “you can’t work in political-related issues without putting yourself in danger.” But she highlighted how multimedia outreach such as theatre had helped to break down walls and build trust in communities where she had worked. “We need to remember that stories have a powerful, magical way of affecting people,” she said. The aim of her organization is to inspire people around the world to act on “issues that matter,” and to do so, she said, “We raised voices, especially [because] we come from current conflict areas.” Her theatre piece received a “very effective response,” from people who told her that they had learned something new and “deep” about conflict, since “it’s not a lecture, it’s not an information[al presentation], it’s only talking to their minds and their emotions.”
Ms. Barakeh said that she measured success as being able to make a “shift in our value system” and “change behavior.” To do this in conflict situations, she explained that “we need to speak the language of people in our work.” One successful approach had been an interactive dance and theatre game.
Ayten Birhanie, Executive Director of the Peace and Development Center in Addis Ababa, emphasized that “youth are not a homogenous group,” that “they have different needs and demands,” and that youth “should also have the space to define their own issues rather than finding the issues for them.” Youths, he said, need “an enabling environment.” We must create a “political safe space for their dialogue.” In addition, he said that new kinds of exposure and integration of resources from other organizations’ best practices could help make a difference.
Suad Mohamed, a pharmacist and Interpreter for the Austrian Red Cross and Diakonie Refugee Service in Vienna, listed three levels to consider when working with the younger generation—family and safety, the education system, and the social system. Understanding these, she said, could help guide strategies on how to interact with youth, because “if the basic [system] is not there, then corruption or violence can form.” She expressed her hope that international organizations could give youth a better platform to exhibit their talent and experience. “We need more support,” she said.
Ms. Mohamed also spoke about the perception of refugees in the public eye. Her aim was to change the view of immigration at hiring agencies in Austria. Despite what the media may portray in local communities, “refugees are qualified,” she said. By presenting the stories of hardworking individual refugees to a greater audience, she said, she could communicate that “these people are not ignorant, they need education” along with funding and resources.
Juma Mwangi, a Community Youth Leader and boda boda driver in Nairobi, said that he tries to be a “role model for these youths who I grew up with, and… bring them back from doing crime, being radical, and joining all these groups such as Al Shabab.” He said that a dropout, former gang member, criminal, or someone doing drugs, “can also be a leader and bring peace to our area.” Lately his work has focused on bridging the gap between youth and police, since “it is not easy for our youth to sit in the same place as a policeman.” These dialogues try to show them that “police are also human like us and here to provide security and to keep law and order.”
One challenge he faced in his work was that many youths in his area were not employed. “As much as we can, we try to show them their natural skills and try to show them that they can employ themselves,” despite the fact that “we lack the government support we need,” he said. “I’m trying to show them that if you employ yourself, you have the money and you have the skills, you don’t need to join this group and be a radical or join crime.” Other challenges include the political environment, finance, and hate speech on social media, as well as a lack of understanding the political environment. “Most organizations that come to Majengo come with concepts from boardroom decisions, they don’t know what we go through, they don’t know what we need, and they’re coming to tell us.”
Youth have a large role in peacebuilding, he said, because “when students start protesting, the country starts burning.” But, he continued, “I was amazed to find that a person like me can stand and make a change in a place like Nairobi.”
The Vienna Seminar is annually co-organized by IPI and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Defence and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration, and Foreign Affairs. This year the seminar featured voices from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Ban Ki-Moon Centre for Global Citizens, the Peace and Development Center, the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, and the World Federation of UN Associations, and youth activists, among others.
Other Participants Included:
- Karin Proidl, Director of International Organizations, Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs
- Monika Froehler, Chief Executive Officer, Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens
- Phillipe Tremblay, Head of the External Co-Operation Section, Office of the Secretary General, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
- Gordana Berjan, Executive Director, European Youth Centre, Council of Europe
- Anna-Katharina Deininger, Focal Point on Youth and Security, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe
- Sarah Smith,‘Building Peace’ Programme Officer, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation
- Margaret Williams, 16+ Forum Coordinator and Senior Policy Officer, World Federation of UN Associations
- Andreas Riecken, Director-General for EU and Multilateral Affairs, Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs