We are the world’s youth. We make up a huge share of its population. We demand a voice in peace talks.

Marching for peace, Yangon, Myanmar, 21 September 2014 (EPA/Nyein Chan Naing)
Marching for peace, Yangon, Myanmar, 21 September 2014 (EPA/Nyein Chan Naing)

By Irena Grizelj

We make up a huge share of the world’s population. Hundreds of millions of us live in war-torn countries. We are the world’s next leaders.

But we, the world’s youth, are excluded from negotiations that decide our future, even as threats to our future mount.

Last month, the United Nations agreed to do something about it. The UN Security Council adopted its first ever resolution calling for the direct involvement of young people in peace negotiations.

“Youth have for too long been cast away as either the perpetrators of violence or its victims,” the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, said after the resolution on youth, peace and security was adopted on December 9.

The resolution comes at a time when an estimated 600 million young people live in fragile and conflict-affected settings and against the rise of radicalization and violent extremism, according to the UN. Around the world, youth organizations have begun to demand that their voices be heard.

The rare studies into the role of youth in peace processes have focused on youth as post-conflict “peace-builders”. Until now, no one has seriously asked what role youth can have in negotiations.

Young Colombians are demanding a voice in peace talks.

In Colombia, more than 100,000 young people, mainly university students, have signed a petition to demand the inclusion of youth in negotiations between the government and the rebel movement FARC. So far, 36 rounds of talks have taken place in the Cuban capital Havana — without youth participation.

The petition describes youth as the principal victims of — and sometimes actors in — war. It notes that almost a quarter of the FARC leaders were recruited as children.

In Myanmar, a country undergoing democratic transition, the government’s chief negotiator has acknowledged that “Myanmar’s future depends on the 16 million youth population and that the youth play a crucial role in the reform process.”

“The current negotiators may be the fathers of our country, but we are the children and we should learn what our fathers are doing,” Yan Naing Htun, who steers a committee of over 20 youth-led organizations in Myanmar known as the YPPP, told me.

“We want to ensure that issues of labor, health and education are discussed in the political dialogue.”

In Myanmar, over half the population is under 27 years old. The YPPP argues that youth are more open to new ideas and new ways of problem-solving, and more open to working across divisions that have perpetuated one of the world’s longest civil wars.

Traditional negotiators are unwilling to share power.

So, why haven’t youth been included in peace negotiations so far? We can partly blame the mind-set of traditional mediators and negotiators, and their unwillingness to share political power.

Elite male political groups have long set the agenda of peace processes and decided their direction. This is starting to change. Victims of conflict and women, for instance, are sometimes consulted but rarely given the chance to directly participate.

There are, however, several reasons why youth could make a critical contribution.

First, they have the capacity to rapidly mobilize, as shown by the student movement of 1988 in Myanmar, the Arab Spring after 2010 and the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong.

Over 25% of the world’s population is aged 10-24, with a global median age of 29.7 years. If young people feel excluded from negotiations, they are more likely to rebel against decisions they do not agree with.

Second, youth are not a homogeneous group. We are diverse, with a multitude of different experiences and fresh opinions that challenge traditional thought.

Third, a peace process must be accountable to all stakeholders of society. An agreement must be acceptable to the negotiators and also legitimate in the eyes of the next generation.

Youth must be at the center of the peace process.

Simply taking part in negotiations is not, however, sufficient to achieve better outcomes. Participants must be able to influence the talks and make meaningful contributions.

A problem is how to ensure that the selected participants represent all youth voices. One possible method is to establish a “youth council” of elected representatives from different youth organizations, with whom participants consult.

Another is through official consultative youth forums in parallel to the negotiations. They would follow the same agenda as the official negotiation, provide recommendations, and promote the inclusion of further issues if necessary. While this avoids too many voices at the negotiation table, regular communication is critical to ensure that youth have a genuine say in the process.

High-level Civil Society Initiatives, also known as “Track Two Diplomacy”, can also be a channel of youth communication to the official talks. Such initiatives offer alternative channels of communication during formal negotiations.

Youth should no longer be seen as a side-group to peace negotiations. They must be placed at the center of the process.


Irena Grizelj
 

Irena Grizelj will be presenting a paper on youth in peace-building to the International Studies Association in Atlanta this March. Her paper will be published in the Journal of International Negotiation’s special issue on Inclusive Negotiations. If you would like to contact her, please do so at igrizel1@jhu.edu.

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