One in four of the world’s 1.8 billion young people is affected by violence or armed conflict. Ninety per cent of direct conflict-related deaths are of young men. Young people must be part of efforts to make and build peace.
In December 2015 the Security Council, via resolution 2250, recognized the important and positive contribution of youth to the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security. The resolution defines an all-encompassing framework for the role of young people in the prevention and resolution of conflicts around five pillars: Participation, protection, prevention, partnership and disengagement and reintegration.
The United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) recently discussed ways of further contributing to the implementation of Security Council resolution 2250. Youth representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan and Sierra Leone shared their experiences in peacebuilding. Chernor Bah, a young peacebuilder from Sierra Leone, spoke to Politically Speaking after the meeting about what youth-led and youth-centered peacebuilding looks like.
What are challenges youth in Sierra Leone face? And what are some of their key priorities?
What is your main argument when explaining why the inclusion of young people in peace processes and peacebuilding is important?
Chernor Bah: I think the most foundational thing is that, first, young people lose out most when there is no peace. Young people suffer the most from a lack of peace. And so just from a fairness perspective, it’s just right that young people are included in the process, because it’s important to young people.
Beyond that, there’s the argument around sustaining the peace and winning the peace: For those two things to happen, you cannot exclude a significant portion of the folks who drive society. So just because of the very number of young people and the importance of young people for the stability of a country, they have to be included.
Now, I make much more the case of inclusion of young females, because oftentimes they are the afterthought. If you look at the structure of society, the role that females play, young girls particularly, both in times of crisis but also after the crisis, and that most crises are a factor of exclusion, and the most marginalized or most excluded are oftentimes young rural females, you cannot have a true peace and an inclusive peace, that does not include that group, because it’s not going to last. And it’s not going to be a positive peace, if you do that. So that’s how I often frame it, both that they suffer the most from lack of peace and so it’s just fair that they should be at the forefront of defining it. They are a significant part of society, and they’re going to own the peace process going forward, today and in the future. The only group that can say ‘We are today and the future’, are young people, particularly young females.
What are some of the hurdles young people face trying to contribute to peacebuilding in Sierra Leone?
There’s a lot. As I said at the UN, the problem of the peacebuilding infrastructure right now is that the structure is exclusionary of young people. The structure is not designed to fully incorporate young people. I said, in my speech, that if you think about it, young people are all about radical overthrow of systems. If you really ask young people what they want: They want to dismantle the current system, to smash the patriarchal system, if you ask young females. And that’s kind of inconsistent with the infrastructure of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding, oftentimes, at least the formal peacebuilding structures, is about how do we exactly NOT smash things up? How do we patch things up? How do we make sure everybody’s easy and going along? And they do it in a way that respects hierarchy and authority. Exactly the things that leave young people out. So, there’s a structural problem.
Another part of the structural problem is gaining access. They create a threshold of some kind of capacity that does not use benchmarks looking at young people’s lives and their experiences, but benchmarks for what the bureaucrats, politicians and people like that need.
And then there’s the resource challenge. And a lot of young people who are excluded, are excluded as well from resources. And being in the room, requires resources. Having a voice, requires resources. Mobilizing requires resources. And, you know, it’s a product of exclusion of young people, that they do not have resources. That’s a really big problem. I think, those factors combined at the top level, and then still traditional notions of ‘young people should be seen and not heard’, and if they are heard they have to do it in order, again, not to disrupt. And I argue that, actually, what you really need for true peace is an openness to disruption, for smashing, because if you don’t smash, you’re not going to make peace.
How do you imagine youth-led and youth-focused peacebuilding? What are key ingredients for making this happen?
I think it’s about questioning structures. I think we need a bit more systematic structural change in the peacebuilding infrastructure and in the assumptions of peacebuilding, the idea that it’s just about stability, it’s just about making sure that everything is okay. I think young people-led peacebuilding will be about change and be willing to change the system and structures as it exists.
I imagine that for example, institutions like the peacebuilding commission will be restructured completely differently in a way that young people have a much more prominent role. And not necessarily sitting in New York, but in the places where we are, where young people are; providing resources to even unregistered groups in rural areas, who are not interested in getting registered, but who are at the forefront of peacebuilding; supporting organization and supporting a movement-led approach where there’s support for young people who are interested in building movements; and again a real, direct, intentional focus on young females, which again, is completely missing in this infrastructure.
Can you give an example of where the perspectives of Sierra Leone’s youth in peacebuilding initiatives were successfully included?
I would say, the work that we did, when I was myself a child peacebuilder. I ended up, at the age 15, organizing, building a movement of children across the country. We traveled all over the country. We organized clubs. We demanded that our voices be heard. We wrote a submission to the country’s Truth Commission. We had specific recommendations on making education free, a provision on passing a new law that would protect particularly girls, requested investments in girls’ education and being in the room when the peace was being negotiated. And the only reason why that happened is because we as young people, children, organized ourselves, we were willing to be disruptive of the process, to insist on what we wanted, and we had very clear goals and very clear demands, which we pushed for throughout the process.
There were definitely challenges in that process, but I think it’s an example of where young people with some agency and some support can positivily influence a peacebuilding process.
How can the UN better ensure the voices of young women and men are heard? What is your message to the UN?
It’s about moving the conversation at the UN to the communities where we work, in grassroots, with young girls and young boys, and communities, who are organizing, but which are not as formalized. How can the UN have a place, have a voice for them? How can structures be included, where these folks feel like they are part and parcel of driving the conversation? How can the UN and the Peacebuilding Commission fund young grassroots, unregistered groups or can they work with groups like ours and the kind of work we’re doing? And I will say, my messages is: The world is changing. The world has changed. Young people have defined that change by their size, by their innovation and ingenuity. And the UN needs to change to catch up with young people, and it’s not the other way around.
Title picture: Villagers in Kenema, Sierra Leone, await the return of family members and friends who have been living as refugees in a Liberian refugee camp, Camp David in Western Liberia for more than a decade. October 2006, Kenema, Sierra Leone. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein