Why safeguarding young people’s rights is essential for Europe’s future
Protecting the rights of young people and ensuring their participation in policymaking is crucial to sustaining peaceful societies and preventing conflicts. For this to happen, it is important to safeguard the space for civil society and address structural barriers to youth participation, while ensuring that social justice requirements are met.
Peace is precarious
There is no question that maintaining peace is essential for our societies. Safeguarding peace, however, must never be taken for granted. From addressing political and social crises, to tackling underlying issues of racism, discrimination and inequalities, we are still far from the goal of building societies that work well for everyone. If we really are to have peace flourish, we must first enable the most vulnerable to enjoy their rights.
In the past decades, Europe has experienced relative peace. However, this peace cannot be taken for granted. Socio-economic disparities, populism and instability are starting to affect the continent, and have contributed to manifestations of large-scale unrest, violence between individuals, and even state violence targeting individuals, organisations and movements.
Role of the youth
But what is the role of the youth in this context? And why is protecting youth rights a precondition to fostering peace?
Young people have always contributed to building peaceful and inclusive societies through peace and policy dialogue, reconciliation processes, intercultural youth exchanges, and empowering other young people through non-formal education. Too often, however, as noted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, structural barriers and obstacles prevent young people from accessing their rights. This can contribute to driving conflict.
The challenges young people face in accessing their rights are manifold: rising inequalities, lack of access to quality education and to decent jobs, housing insecurity, the impact of the climate crisis, a shrinking civic space, the prevalence of racism and discrimination, poor mental health, and many others. These challenges, currently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, not only perpetuate existing inequalities but, worryingly, they feed instabilities. This is further complicated by the fact that the youth are far from a homogeneous group: accessing rights can be even more difficult depending on ethnic and religious background, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics. Young people experiencing multiple exclusions are particularly at risk and often missed by general programmes and policy agendas.
This is why recognising young people as rights-holders, and ensuring their access to all of their rights, both civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural, is a key first step in building stable societies. One in every four young persons in the European Union (EU) is at risk of poverty and social exclusion; the highest percentage of all age groups. If we really want to build back better and fairer, then we need to start by making sure current and future generations of young people, starting from the most vulnerable, can not only live in dignity but also thrive. For policies to work for the youth, and for our rights to be met, young people must be part of the decision-making conversations.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security formally recognises young people’s key role as actors in preventing conflict and building peace. Yet, a 2018 progress study on youth, peace and security found that rather than being recognised as a meaningful partner for peace and sustainable development, the largest global generation of youth is being excluded from governance systems.
Shrinking space for youth organisations
When it comes to youth rights, a key global issue is the shrinking space for youth organisations. From obstacles to accessing funding to lack of meaningful consultation and participation processes, to threats against human rights defenders, many youth-led organisations and movements struggle to thrive. Civil society organisations amplify the voices of minority and other at-risk groups by raising the visibility of the key issues they face. Youth organisations engaging young people in civic life are particularly important as they target youth-specific issues that would otherwise be neglected. Moreover, youth organisations actively advocate for the rights and freedoms of youth, educate young people to promote a culture of peace and hold institutions accountable for their human rights obligations towards young people. A shrinking civic space for the youth, therefore, negatively affects young people’s economic and social outcomes as well as their political and community engagement, subsequently undermining the very stability of societies.
Meaningful participation of young people in all stages of policymaking is crucial to building peaceful societies. Both EU and African states should create mechanisms to make that inclusion a reality.
While the shrinking civic space is a global trend, with certain regions being more affected than others, a recent European Youth Forum publication, Safeguarding Civic Space for Young People in Europe, shows that youth organisations are facing multiple barriers at the European level too. In our research, we found that one out of five youth organisations fear retribution if they decide to publicly speak out. Two out of five youth organisations do not feel completely free from government interference, and one out of three experienced barriers to acquiring foreign funding. Lastly, almost a third of youth organisations across Europe face difficulties when trying to participate in policy deliberations and decision-making processes. More than this, though, more than half of youth organisations feel that the youth is under-represented, is largely or completely marginalised, or has limited access to civic space.
Road to truly meaningful youth participation
The road to truly meaningful youth participation is still long. To safeguard civic space for young people, and protect peace and security, institutions must support the meaningful participation of young people in public affairs. Their performance should be systematically monitored to ensure that youth organisations can carry out their work independently and without facing threats, harassment or violence. Data should be gathered to assess to what extent civic spaces are inclusive of young people across identities, cultures and communities. Finally, the question of funding is essential to allow young people, and especially marginalised youth, to participate in peace and security processes and in programmes to reinforce youth participation and inclusion.
Without the meaningful inclusion of the youth and protection of our rights and space for engagement, European peace is precarious at best. This is not something the continent, or the world, can afford right now. We have many pressing challenges ahead of us that will require common effort and a commitment from governments to fair, inclusive and peaceful societies as well as protection of the rights of young people.
About the author
Silja Markkula is President of the European Youth Forum. Silja is devoted to advancing youth rights and has for the past few years put her time and energy into supporting European youth organisations in engaging with various human rights processes. Currently, she studies social and cultural anthropology at the University of Helsinki. Twitter: @SiljaMarkkula
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This article appears in the youth edition of ECDPM's Great Insights magazine – check out the full issue or the other articles and multimedia below.