Young people are caught in the crossfire in war. Those who survive are left with long term consequences. But we don’t think to include them in peace making.

Decoder replay Youth and peace talks

Ukrainian youth huddle in prayer on 8 April 2022, as the group disbands after spending nearly a week together taking part in the National Model United Nations Conference in New York. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan)

Editor’s note: Human Rights Watch reports that in the the Israeli-Gaza conflict an estimated 5,500 children have been killed in the Gaza Strip since 7 October. In the Hamas-led attack on Israel on 7 October at least 33 children were killed and 40 children taken as hostages. In this Decoder Replay, we republish a story by Irena Grizelj, a peace consultant, originally published January 2016, that argues that the voice and perspective of young people should be included in peace talks. We launched Decoder Replay to help readers better understand current world events by seeing how our correspondents decoded similar events in the past.

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 9 December.

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.

Youth demand a voice.

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.

What young people can add

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 at the center of a 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.

questions to consider:

  1. Why does the author argue that youth should be included in peace talks?
  2. What perspective could a young person add to complicated peace talks?
  3. If you were asked to participate in talks to solve the Ukraine-Russia conflict or Palestinian-Israeli conflict what ideas would you offer?

Irena Grizelj is a researcher and consultant for Inclusive Peace Processes with over 7 years’ experience, focused on youth and civil society participation.

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