Taking Stock: The Secretary-General’s Report on Youth, Peace and Security

In 2015 the UN Security Council passed the landmark Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security, marking the first time youth had been recognised formally as positive contributors to peacebuilding and conflict resolution by the body, and formalising a call for governments and other actors to support youth peacebuilders’ work. This year is the 5th anniversary of the resolution, which makes it timely that the Secretary General’s Report on Youth, Peace and Security (S/2020/167) reflecting on achievements and ongoing challenges, will be discussed by the UNSC next week. 

The SG’s report identifies two clear findings. The first is that recognition of young people’s ‘essential’ role in peace and security is increasing; this is in large part due to the tireless advocacy and work by civil society, and key areas within the UN. The Global Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security, which played a key role in the lead up to the 2015 UNSC Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security, has continued to liase with governments, INGOs, regional organisations, and crucially youth peacebuilders themselves, to embed and progress the agenda. 

The second is that despite these successes, core challenges remain: structural barriers that limit young people’s participation and influence, violation of their human rights, and insufficient investment in ‘facilitating their inclusion,’. As the UN Security Council meets to discuss the SG’s report on Monday, here are three reflections on these core challenges and why overcoming them is central to the progress of the Youth, Peace and Security agenda. 

One: Inclusion

While progress on including young people in public life has been made over the reporting period, however, meaningful youth participation in the maintenance of peace and security remains a challenge…More needs to be done to create an enabling environment for young people in which they are seen and respected as citizens with equal rights, equal voices and equal influence

(SG Report, para 14, 2020)

Resolution 2250’s groundbreaking recognition that “young people play an important and positive role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security” laid the groundwork for the meaningful inclusion of youth. In 2018, the Missing Peace: Independent Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security, identified ‘the violence of exclusion’ as a “form of structural and psychological violence that is deeply rooted in the reciprocal mistrust between young people, their governments, and the multilateral system’ (p xii). Increasing the awareness of, and responding to, the structural barriers to young people’s inclusion has been a core achievement of the YPS agenda to date. The language here is crucial: young people face ‘structural barriers’ (SG Report, 2020 para. 10), and the onus must be on those with the power to remove them. 

The inclusion of young people can not just be rhetorical, and must occur at every level. The SG’s report’s recommendations particularly focus on ‘meaningful participation’ in a range of formal spaces including as UNSC briefers (para 74.b), in peace agreements (para 75.b, see also Resolution 2419 (2018)), within efforts ‘relevant within mission mandates’ (para 74.a). Attention at the UN has been in this formal space; Resolution 2419 (2018), which required this SG’s report, was focused on youth inclusion in peace processes. Altiok and Grizelj, in their policy paper on Res2419, We Are Here, noted that youth participation can happen formally—‘at the table’ and ‘in the room’ of negotiations—but also ‘outside the room’ where youth form a key part of civil society activists for peace in all countries.

(Image from We Are Here report, Altiok and Grizelj, 2019)

Efforts have also focused on the development of ‘national road maps’, with Finland, the Gambia, Colombia, Nigeria and the Philippines, all in the process of developing plans. These road maps are similar to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda’s National Action Plans (NAPs), which have been shown to have significant benefits in formalising and institutionalising the agenda, but also run the risk of silo-ing the agenda, and reproducing inequalities. While road maps are a laudable step, actors should proceed with caution in their development. Country-level inclusion of youth in peace and security should include road maps, but also be more expansive. The operationalisation of the YPS agenda still confronts challenges, according to a recent report by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation including lack of awareness and understanding about the agenda, tokenistic inclusion of youth in ‘consultations’, and persistent narratives of youth as potential threats. 

Regional organisations have also taken up the YPS agenda—often again, after advocacy by youth-led organisations and their allies. The African Union has established a Youth Envoy position, held currently by Aya Chebbi, who has been highly active in foregrounding youths’ contributions to the ‘Silencing the Guns’ campaign and centring youth concerns in regional peace and security issues. In the European Union, advocacy by youth peacebuilders has seen YPS gain traction with expanded space and funding for youth programs. In both the AU and EU there is a continuing focus on countering violent extremism, and access to funding continues to be an obstacle for youth organisations working in these contexts. The United Network of Youth Peacebuilders (UNOY) made several key recommendations in their mapping report last year about how the EU can better ensure the meaningful inclusion of youth across their programming. 

Slowly and sporadically, discourses are shifting to recognise youth not only as social actors, in need of support for education and employment; but also as political actors, capable and deserving of inclusion in decision making processes. Including youth challenges dominant norms and understandings of young people—it asks other actors to put aside long held views of youth as passive, as disengaged and apathetic, and most challengingly, as ‘threats to be managed’ (Simpson 2018). However, tokenism is transparent, and youth peacebuilders see through superficial efforts to ‘include’ young people. As the agenda moves towards ways to institutionalise the pillars and attract commitments from states and regional actors, the meaningful inclusion  of youth at every stage must by maintained and strengthened. 

Two: Security and Safety

Young people face a multitude of special protection threats and challenges. In particular, reports of continuing threats and human rights violations against young peacebuilders and human rights defenders are of grave concern… it is the responsibility of Member States to guarantee a safe and conducive environment for all those who defend human rights.

(SG Report, para 35, 2020)

Young people face significant risks in their advocacy for peace and security. Like other human rights defenders, peacebuilders, and civil society leaders, youth face harassment, threats and attacks and intimidation. Youth peace activists continue to be killed because of the work they do, like Almaas Elman in Somalia, and many others around the world. Institutions, including the UN, need to step up to ensure the safety of youth, recognising their safety and security is the safety and security of their communities and families too. It is excellent to note that the SG’s report discusses these issues, noting that ‘it is the responsibility of Member States to guarantee a safe and conducive environment for all those who defend human rights’ (para 35). This comes under the pillar of ‘protection’ in the report, and I would raise a note of caution that work to protect youth peacebuilders does not become ‘protectionist’ in a way that limits their agency or infantilises them, but rather ensures the space of civic engagement and peacebuilding is protected and secured. 

On that note, there is an ongoing tension in the YPS agenda between framings of youth as potentially at risk of recruitment and radicalisation, and youth as positive peacebuilders. The ‘securitisation’ of YPS already risks ‘skew[ing] youth, peace and security programmatic responses and priorities towards hard security approaches and away from prevention’, as The Missing Piece argues (Simpson 2018; see also Altiok forthcoming). As we see the impacts of COVID-19 around the world, restricting movement and disrupting plans, we also have seen a worrying uptick in governments and authoritarian leaders using the crisis to clamp down on civic space, on rights and on freedoms. 

In April Peace Direct and Conducive Space for Peace (CSP) consulted with local peacebuilders about the impacts of COVID-19, who highlighted that the crisis is exacerbating underlying roots of conflict—particularly inequality, and that some governments are exploiting the crisis for their own agendas, and that some peacebuilders ‘fear it will be difficult to reclaim this space [civil society space] after the crisis’. The vulnerability of populations in conflict zones will be exacerbated by the pandemic, which makes the work of peacebuilders more vital than ever. Responses to the Peace Direct and CSP survey highlight that peacebuilders feel that young peacebuilders ‘can play a leadership role’ and ‘must therefore be at the core of shaping more resilient societies for the future’. This space of civic and social engagement must be defended by the international community, to ensure both the safety of peacebuilders—including youth—and maintain civic space and respect for human rights. 

Three: Funding

“The lack of resources is a profound impediment to the realization of the peacebuilding and sustaining peace approach, and of the 2030 Agenda because youth and peace and security is an accelerator of those global commitments”

(SG report, para 66, 2020)

If governments, INGOs, and international institutions like the UN (and AU and EU) are genuinely committed to the YPS agenda then they have to back up their rhetoric with financial commitment. Financing youth peace work has often proven difficult because, as interviewees told me last year during pilot work for my current research, youth-led peacebuilding organisations often struggle to meet requirements to apply for funding or are unfamiliar with forms and processes. However, funding youth peacebuilders by proxy (giving funding to an adult-led organisation to administer) runs the risk of further embedding power inequalities and disenfranchising youth. Donor funding models must shift towards effectively supporting local organisations and networks with ‘radical flexibility’, this includes youth. This local-focus presents a challenge to organisations like the UN, but actors should see this as an opportunity for commitment to the agenda. 

It is positive to see the diversity of funding efforts that are emerging. The UN Peacebuilding Fund Youth Promotion Initiative gave 40% of funds to ‘civil society’ in 2019, and increased funding significantly (SG report, para. 68)—these numbers deserve closer scrutiny and sustained attention (see Mollica’s forthcoming work on donors and YPS). The Secretary-General’s report calls for further funding directly of youth-led organisations, increase of funding overall, and committed integration of funding for youth within other funding streams at the UN. 

If actors are serious about the YPS agenda, rhetoric must be supported with financial commitment, and that commitment must be to positive peacebuilding projects, that substantially include youth. 

Where to from here?

In 2018, three years after the passage of the ground-breaking resolution 2250, and after consultation with over 4000 youth peacebuilders globally, the Missing Peace report identified three key, interrelated strategies for ensuring the success of the agenda (p116-128): 

Include, Invest, Partner. 

This trio of strategies contain a multitude of tasks, efforts, actions and challenges. The UN, governments and civil society, need to continue to step up to the plate in advancing the agenda. 

I continue to be cautious about rhetoric evident in the SG’s report, but more broadly in this space, that continues to limit issues in which young people ‘have a stake’ to education and employment (para 40). Youth need to be meaningfully included in all spheres of political, social, and economic decision making. .

The SG’s report is a clear call for more systematic efforts to integrate the YPS agenda. This integration must be seen (and enacted) as a complementary, not competing agenda, with other efforts in the peacebuilding space). Youth representation and voice must be increased at all levels, and youth-inclusive peacebuilding must be committed to and sustainably funded. 

There is a risk at any milestone of focusing on ‘what happened’, rather than what was learned. The SG report highlights the impressive diversity of activities, support, and structural change that has occurred since 2015 to increase the inclusion of youth in peace and security practices, and to ensure that peace and security work for and with youth. However, there is still much to be done, and the successes and failures of the agenda so far must be learned from, and built upon. The UNSC will discuss the UN Secretary-General’s report on Monday. This must not just be a platform for self-congratulation, or a space to reinforce limiting discourses on youth, but for meaningful commitment to further work with and for youth, with youth voices and participation at its heart. 


May be of interest:

For Youth Peacebuilders there are two current surveys I’m aware of, open for your feedback:

1. The UN Youth Envoy has a survey in the lead up to the UNSC resolution next week

2. The EU Youth Forum has a survey live on the impacts of COVID19 on youth rights.

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