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Defining, Protecting, Recruiting Youth: Security Council Members Revisit their 20s, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Dec

This was quite a week for the UN.  A Climate agreement was reached in Paris.   Several contentious Security Council meetings helped to define its role going forward on Ukraine, Libya, Central African Republic and the DPRK.   The General Assembly took public responsibility for improving mechanisms for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.   And the human rights “pillar” took center stage with high-level events to remember victims of genocide and promote “Human Rights Upfront.”

But perhaps the most intriguing event of the week was not about climate or genocide, but about “youth,” that vague and fluctuating category of human existence to which we often pay too little attention unless we are trying to sell something – a product, generally, but also an idea, a policy, a value or even a lifestyle.

On December 9, with leadership from Jordan, the Security Council passed Resolution 2250 on “Youth, Peace and Security” ( symbol=S/RES/2250(2015). Modeled to some degree after SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, this resolution represents a formal affirmation of the “important role youth can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and as a key aspect of the sustainability, inclusiveness and success of peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.”

Other sections of the resolution pointed to the “unique demographic dividend” represented by today’s large population of young adults that can help build lasting peace and economic prosperity.  The resolution also cites the vulnerability of these persons to recruitment by terrorist organizations and urges more protection for them during conflict and post-conflict situations as well as their greater participation in “peace processes.”

On the surface there is little to argue with here.  Jordan, which has been a most influential non-permanent member over the past two years, has used that influence to sponsor a resolution that recognizes the significant peace and security contributions that can be made – and are now being made – by younger people.  Moreover, this resolution blends two of the major concerns voiced by Jordan during its Security Council tenure – promoting youth and countering terrorism – which we hope it will continue to take leadership on once Jordan “returns” to its place within the general UN membership.

Indeed, one of the important takeaways from the service of non-permanent Council members is defining the security-related issues that will exemplify their work at the UN going forward.   Nigeria, for instance, has taken leadership on Security Sector Reform.  Lithuania has been a compelling voice on gender issues as well as on countering foreign terror fighters and the ongoing security crisis in Ukraine.  Chile has done excellent work on UN-sponsored criminal tribunals and on the requirement of dependable international justice in general.   Chad has been a strong voice for the evolving security partnership that is developing between the Council and the African Union.   As with Jordan, we appeal to all these members to retain their voices on issues on which they have gained considerable expertise and diplomatic visibility during their Council tenure.  Each of them has earned this leadership and, like governments before them, we very much need them to exercise it fully.

Returning to this landmark resolution 2250, there are caveats that we would wish to pose to Jordan and other states and stakeholders regarding the definition, character and policy access of youth.

First, we should probably acknowledge that the term “youth” represents something of a controversial matter.  The resolution – following the lead of the General Assembly – defines “youth” as persons between 18 and 29 years of age.    As someone who was raised in a different time, who was on his own making some semblance of adult decisions (albeit mostly badly) prior to reaching the chronological starting line for this resolution, I have always found this definition a bit jarring.  Rightly or wrongly, I would have been appalled as a 16 or 17 year old to be patronized by a definition that seemed to be more about limiting my options than honoring what seemed at the time to be my best assets and interests.  That such a limitation could have been applied to me at 28 or 29 years of age is almost beyond comprehension.

I suspect it would seem that way to many “youth” now as well.  For instance, just yesterday, thousands of US navy and army cadets sat in a stadium in Philadelphia and cheered on their respective football teams.   These are all “youth” by 2250 definition, persons in their 20s who just happen to be well on their way to becoming officers in a huge military establishment, thus having much to do, for better or worse, with how the international community defines and implements security.   They are not looking for protection by their government, but are ostensibly offering protection to the rest of us.  Adults assuming adult responsibilities.

Clearly, the criteria for the youth “leadership” and “empowerment” we seek to promote are not immediately apparent either to young people or the rest of us.   There are many “youth” in the approved range who are now running NGOs, religious institutions, even political offices. Does “leadership” simply mean being in positions of institutional authority, or is something else involved, something related to character and maturity of judgment?  In a similar vein, does “empowerment” merely mean “having a voice?”  And if it is about this, does it matter what kind of voice that is, what its objectives are?  Clearly the Council doesn’t particularly want “voices” that promote terrorism or advocate its attractions.  What else don’t we want?  Do we want voices that promote sexism, xenophobia, or rampant consumerism?  Do we want voices that advocate the selfish hording of resources or the destruction of ecosystems?   Do we want voices that dismiss sustainable development or human rights as anachronistic artifacts of sentimental liberal states?

The implications of these questions are, at least to my office, very much worth considering.   As young people — especially from more elite environments — spend more and more time in school, the values of school resonate, which at least in much of the West include the commodification of knowledge, competitive careerism, peer obsessiveness, etc.   What school (and western culture at large) is not so good at, apparently, is providing tools for genuine independence of thinking and living beyond the expectations of peers and the wider culture.  Nevertheless, people in their 20s, despite the intense consumerist and institutional programming to which they have been subjected, retain essential elements of distinctiveness. They don’t all go to college, they don’t all leave their birth communities to pursue “opportunity,” they don’t all spend their free time in frivolous socializing, they don’t all embrace religious institutions or political ideologies, they don’t all stare into cell phones for hours a day, they aren’t all suspicious of adults who aren’t directly subsidizing their lifestyles.

In some sense, there is irony in having to encourage governments, as does SCR 2250, to pay more attention to a demographic that is so large in number and so close to assuming cultural and political leadership in their respective societies.  These erstwhile “youth” are adults, plain and simple.   As with persons in every other demographic category, they deserve policy attention from states and international institutions, in their case especially on matters of education (not only school-based) and employment. But they are generally not helpless, not attracted to every “bell and whistle” offered up by advertisers or terror groups, not “special needs” any more than other generation might be.

If our political leaders want to involve these “youth” in efforts to eliminate extremism and prevent conflict, goals about which we heartily agree, this would seem to require (at least) two ingredients beyond formal resolutions. First, a commitment to reopening inter-generational dialogue, dialogue in which older persons listen more and judge less, but wherein they also insist that “youth” in their 20s commit to no long hide behind age-specific, “essentialist” notions that both let them put off their larger responsibilities and keep them inching towards an adult status that they have mostly already earned.

And the key to this, in every one of “youth’s” diverse incarnations, is personal and policy respect, respect which recognizes and encourages multiple thoughts and aspirations, respect that allows young adults to breathe while meeting their responsibilities and finding their places in a world that is unlikely to heal without their full input.   If Resolution 2250 helps to cultivate higher quality, cross-generational relationships and more fully respected, policy initiative and leadership from younger people, it will become a truly lasting testament to Jordan’s tenure on the Security Council.