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Young Activists Are Ready To Be Effective Peacebuilders

Are governments ready to have us at the table?

Words: Yuko Yokoi
Pictures: Priscilla Du Preez
Date:

American youth are facing a historic juncture. COVID-19 has disrupted our lives and marches for racial justice have shaken our conscience. But youth like myself are also celebrating because this week marks the fifth anniversary of the UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (YPS)­. Resolution 2250 defines “youth” as persons between the ages of 18 and 29 years old and identifies this age group as key stakeholders for sustainable peace. The resolution also calls for member states to prioritize their needs and set up mechanisms that ensure meaningful youth inclusion in all aspects of peacebuilding, including peace processes, prevention, and conflict resolution. Since it passed, the resolution has provided the foundation for a global movement of young people working for peace.

Today’s youth is at the forefront of building bridges that promote peace locally and globally. For example, growing up in Japan and the United States, I often translate for my Japanese parents. Committed to gender equality, I also try to localize ideas of feminism and equality in the Japanese context, which has helped me to think critically about cultural differences and their impact on creating peace. With the introduction of HR 6175 in March 2020, known as the YPS Act, Congress is taking a bipartisan approach to implementing this global policy framework within the United States. The incoming Biden administration, therefore, is facing an unprecedented moment when it comes to youth mobilization and peace promotion and should encourage Congress to pass the YPS Act.

THE MISUNDERSTOOD YOUTH

Around the world, young people are already working in peacebuilding and routinely make unique contributions. Yet they are often ignored and left out of political processes. For example, the Afghan youth are not included in the ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks, even though 63% of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 25. This routine exclusion of the young signals that their voices don’t matter in society — an exclusion that has led to several misconceptions about youth actions.

One of the most common misconceptions is that adolescents are more susceptible to violence but empirical evidence indicates that this is not the case. “The Missing Peace,” a major progress study commissioned by the UN on youth’s contribution to peace and security, debunks the assumption that burgeoning youth is at “risk” that must be managed. The study further explains that this assumption has led to the adoption of repressive approaches by political leaders, who label the young critical of the government as “terrorists.” In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council alerted the international community on how several governments use terms such as “terrorist” and “ violent extremism” without a clear definition to silence political dissents and justify the violation of their human rights. The media also reinforces the stereotype of youth as perpetrators of violence by sensationalizing any violence committed by them. Young people from diverse regions including the Americas and Africa interviewed in the study repeatedly commented on the media’s role of disproportionately highlighting youth violence and its insufficient coverage of youth’s peaceful organizing. In fact, a repressive approach only fosters mistrust of the government amongst the young and exacerbates the exclusion of youth from civic spaces. The YPS Act may help to stop this vicious cycle worldwide.

The world is experiencing a burgeoning youth population, where 1.8 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 24 — more than have ever existed. But  many youth-led peacebuilding efforts are underfunded.

Adolescents in vulnerable states are perceived to be more susceptible to violent extremism. In reality, however, the vast majority of teenagers and young adults choose to respond to conflicts in non-violent and positive ways — some even addressing the root causes of violence. In Yemen, young adults are creating “viable alternatives” for their peers to protect them from extremist groups by building youth networks, offering counternarratives through media and theater, and promoting human rights.

The world is experiencing a burgeoning youth population, where 1.8 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 24 — more than have ever existed. But  many youth-led peacebuilding efforts are underfunded. A survey conducted as part of the UN progress study showed that half of the responded organizations operated on less than USD $5,000 per year, and respondents cited the lack of funding as a major constraint against greater impact. With respect to the US stance on mobilizing youth for peace, only 0.14% of US global foundation giving goes to peace work focused on children and young adults, indicating a lack of prioritization of youth programs, which is short-sighted.

WHY THE YPS ACT MATTERS

The YPS Act, introduced to the House by Representatives Grace Meng (D-NY) and Susan Brooks (R-IN) earlier this year, redefines those between the ages of 16 and 29 as key stakeholders in global security. For example, the YPS Act calls for the US government to encourage youth participation in all levels of peacebuilding processes that it funds and supports worldwide, as well as investing in and providing resources to young peacebuilders working in conflict-affected areas. The bill will set up a Youth, Peace and Security Fund that is dedicated to support youth-led peacebuilding efforts and an advisory group of experts to integrate the interests and perspectives of young people into the development and implementation of US peace and security strategies.

Although the Act directly benefits youth abroad, it has important implications for young people in America as well. For the first time, this law will recognize the role of adolescents as viable partners in conflict prevention. If passed, the YPS Act will serve as an important precedent in Congress that can benefit young people working to forge social justice and reconciliation in divided communities within the United States. Although many youth activists in America do not identify as peacebuilders, they have stood up for human rights and called for action on local and national levels, which in its essence is peacebuilding at its finest. For example, young people across the nation have protested police brutality and racism against Black people and marched to stop climate change. The YPS Act will be a starting point to recognize their agency and efforts, and will hopefully create a path to include American youth in decision-making circles more meaningfully.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) must prioritize the passage of this legislation and adoption of a US national strategy on YPS. The incoming Biden administration must also integrate YPS as a central mechanism in their plan to build peace globally. This won’t be just another stand-alone strategy to put on the shelf, but will be central to the US  strategy on women, peace, and security which is supported by members of both parties because of its preventative and cost-effective approaches to building peace.

In the major UN progress study, young people expressed that their exclusion from civic and political spaces is a form of structural and psychological violence. If President-elect Joe Biden supports the YPS Act, it would mean not only legitimizing young people’s efforts and voices in peacebuilding but also advocating for the elimination of violence that affects them. The Biden administration’s support could create a path for young adults like myself where they see themselves as stakeholders and effective peacebuilders. We’re ready to take on this role. The question is: are governments ready to have us at the table?

Yuko Yokoi is a Youth Peace Volunteer for Search for Common Ground.

Yuko Yokoi

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