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Youth, peace and security: addressing the violence of exclusion

Graeme Simpson’s article draws on his experience as the lead author of the report on youth, peace and security mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2250 (2015). Simpson challenges what he calls the 'policy panic’, which erroneously associates youth with the threat of violence, and fails to recognise that the vast majority of young people reject the use of force. He stresses that, unlike other demographic groups, youth identity is inherently transitional and is constantly being outgrown, which requires strategies to manage such change. Young people refuse to be coopted into corrupt or partisan processes or political systems, and complain that the prevailing discourses of inclusion ignore how they are ‘setting their own tables and forging alternative spaces for engagement’.

Inclusion in practice: participatory research and assessment

In developing a YPS strategy, it was self-evident that an inclusive process was essential. The Missing Peace study itself could not afford to reproduce the problem of exclusion that it was intended to address. To this end, the methodology and design of the study was premised on the need to create access for and to listen to youth voices that were not usually audible in such global policy processes. Through the collaboration with a consortium of civil society peacebuilding organisations with trust-based access to young people and youth-led organisations on the ground, as well as the facilitation of UN entities and agencies, the study undertook extensive dialogue and research. This included seven regional youth consultations, 281 focus group discussions in 44 countries, a survey of over 400 youth-led peacebuilding organisations, 45 country-specific and thematic studies, and mapping of the work already being undertaken by UN entities and agencies as well as various governments. The project involved young people across both the global north and south, from urban and rural areas, and upheld a commitment to a full gender balance of those participating.

Looking ahead, in assessing the further implementation of this global agenda and the specific recommendations of the study, the process for defining progress assessment indicators will similarly need to be based upon the inclusive participation of young people at country and local levels. These measures should not be defined externally by donors or operate as ‘drop-down templates’, but should, like the study, be premised on youth participation, perceptions and definitions in their different country and local contexts.

Meaningful inclusion

From expansive consultations with young people around the world, a key conclusion of The Missing Peace was that it is essential to address the perceptions of injustice and what young people describe as ‘the violence of their exclusion’ – reflecting the systemic and structural character of young people’s marginalisation. But young people also challenged simplistic notions of inclusion, posing the key question of what constitutes ‘meaningful inclusion’. In answer to this challenge, they were quick to point out that political inclusion is not unconditional and to emphasise that they often resisted being included in corrupt systems based on political patronage. They drew attention to the dangers of symbolic or tokenistic approaches which determine which young people are able to participate politically and which are excluded. They noted the dangers of manipulation by political parties, identity-based stakeholders or armed groups and warned of co-optation of youth elites in broader political processes and in formal mediated peace processes. While they recognised the potential importance of participating in youth advisory councils or, through youth quotas, in political parties or in parliaments, they also challenged the limits of these and similar engagements in formal political instruments or processes.

Under the banner ‘nothing about us without us’, young people consulted in the study drew specific attention to the importance of their involvement in the diverse and cutting-edge policy arenas that directly impacted their lives and which also often shaped the underlying causes of societal conflict. Young participants therefore challenged the ‘ghettoisation’ of youth inclusion when treated as the exclusive preserve of youth organisations, or which restricted ‘youth issues’ to a narrow set of concerns. They often criticised governments’ trivialising of youth politics and peacebuilding by corralling them under the ambit of youth ministries or ministries of culture or sports. In this vein, the young people consulted pointed to the transversal importance of the youth demographic, and emphasised for example in the case of the Sustainable Development Goals, that ‘every SDG should be seen as a youth SDG’. They insist that their economic inclusion needed to reach beyond just jobs or vocational education, to facilitate their involvement in the policy, planning and implementation of community development. They drew attention to the inextricable link between youth inclusion and the human rights protections which not only safeguarded their physical wellbeing, but also secured the enabling environment for their organisation and peacebuilding work – including their disruptive change agency through peaceful protest and dissent.

Young people noted that they were often more fearful of their own government’s security forces than of terrorist organisations. They emphasised the importance of inclusion beyond formal political processes as a means of building civic trust at some of the key interfaces between youth and the state – in particular, their interaction with criminal justice or security systems, and in the sphere of education. In these arenas, they challenged their exclusion from security sector or criminal justice reform processes, or from the strategic decisions about educational priorities or curriculum design in which they were often seen as the primary objects but seldom enabled as the key protagonists. They presented an alternative vision of disengagement and reintegration processes that were not just about addressing the dysfunction of predominantly young combatants or former prisoners, but which were centred around the roles of youths and youth organisations at the heart of community-based reintegration processes. And in every one of these arenas of inclusion and participation, they also drew attention to the way distinctions based on gender, caste, race, ethnicity and class, mediated who was, and who was not, included from within the heterogeneous category of youth.

Young people also offered creative challenges to the prevailing discourses of ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. They identified that these often imply that it is others (whether civil society organisations, governments or multilateral organisations) who are ‘setting the table’ and sometimes inviting young people to join it. But they complained that this language often inaccurately suggests their lack of agency, ignoring how young people are shifting the terrain of participation and effectively ‘setting their own tables’. Disillusioned with the limitations of representative politics, they are actively forging alternative spaces for engagement and belonging. In so doing, young women and men demonstrate that they are redefining the arenas in which political, social and economic relations are played out and what this implies for what meaningful inclusion will look like in practice, both within society and between young people and the state.

The transitional nature of youth identity itself distinguishes youth from other identity-based or demographic groups. The study argues that youth is a socio-political and cultural construct rather than merely a chronological age – a time of passage rather than a passage of time. But unlike most identities, young people eventually outgrow this status even where rites of passage into adulthood are inhibited. This presents distinct operational and tactical challenges in sustaining inclusive youth-led and youth-based peace work, including the specific need for constantly reproducing and refreshing youth leadership (including within civil society organisations), and sustaining the transitioning capacities and agency from one youth cohort to successive cohorts. This presents unique challenges within youth-based social movements and organisations, and in turn impacts upon the relationship between these movements and wider society, and youth organisations specifically involved in peace processes.

Resilience of youth peace work: challenging the boundaries of inclusion

The Missing Peace documents the creative, endogenous and resourceful manifestations of youth-led and youth-based peace work, identifying the alternative pathways for investment in youth resilience, rather than security-based investments based on risk alone. This calls for a significant shift in the narrative of how we think about the participation of young people in processes that build and sustain peace and security.

The study describes how young people are engaged in peace work across all phases of the conflict-to-peace spectrum, from early intervention models seeking to prevent the outbreak of violence in relatively peaceful societies, to preventing the escalation of conflict, to the process of peace and reconciliation in the wake of violence. Young people’s participation in building and sustaining peace therefore demands the recognition that this is an engagement in a non-segmented peace and conflict continuum which is neither just about ceasefires nor post-conflict peace settlements.

  • The study goes further to demonstrate that young people are working across different typologies of violence – from gender-based violence in the public and private spheres, to political violence, organised criminal violence, to terrorism – recognising the extent to which the patterns of and boundaries between different types of violent conflict change over time within a society or community.
  • Young people are also working from the most local people-to-people peacebuilding approaches, and up through different institutional, national and international levels – acknowledging the systemic relationship between these various peacebuilding tracks.
  • Youth-based peace work is also innovative in forging trans-sectoral partnerships, with government institutions and agencies at local or national levels, and with civil society organisations across peacebuilding, human rights, gender, development and humanitarian operational pillars.
  • Youth-led and youth-based peace work also boasts the development of innovative tools and popular methodologies, including sports, culture, art and music, and particularly the use new technologies and the occupation of cyberspace.

The shifting parameters of globalisation have also dramatically changed the horizons of youth experience. Technology, social media and cyberspace have radically altered boundaries – from the turf of the local community to global perspectives on horizontal inequality – while simultaneously creating platforms for wider organisation, connectivity and new forms of direct collective action. These factors potentially reshape the face of youth political participation both within and outside the margins of formal peace processes, although it is important to recognise that the digital divide still potentially serves as another vehicle for exclusion and inequality.

Youth inclusion: contesting the boundaries between formal and non-formal peace processes

This brief description of youth-based and youth-led peacebuilding practice arguably demarcates a diverse set of spaces in which young women and men engage and participate, and in which they redefine meaningful inclusion in their everyday practice and in their creative – if sometimes disruptive – agency for change. This also challenges prevailing assumptions of the spaces where peace is most meaningfully forged, and certainly upends the dividing lines between formal and non-formal peace processes, as well as between preventive and remedial approaches and between adaptive and more transformative forms of resilience.

There is no implication that it is any less important to address the fact that young people are only exceptionally included in formal mediated peace processes – or the anomaly that where they are present, it is likely to be those who have carried weapons or who have been selected by warring factions, rather than nonviolent young change-agents. However, while violence may be one good reason to include young women and men, it is by no means the best one. Ultimately it is the value young people bring to both the durability and legitimacy of peace processes, and the key preventive role that youth buy-in might serve, both in the short and long term, that will have a greater bearing on the future traction of peace settlements. Whether in the management of transgenerational transmission of traumatic memory of past conflict, or as the transgenerational guarantors of peace settlements, it is critical that youth peace work is not treated as insular but is fully integrated in these wider dialogues and political processes. Young people not only have an integral stake in the terms and outcomes of these processes, but are indispensable to them.

Participation quotas have proven themselves to be of strategic importance in enabling the necessary involvement of youth and women in formal peace negotiations. But the challenges of representativeness (especially in a demographic group that reflects a microcosm of the diversity of wider society), the dangers of co-option and manipulation are dilemmas that demand pragmatic approaches and constant attention. Ultimately, the quality of participation is much more important than the quantity. Also, the integrity of the connection between those at the negotiation table and those young peacebuilders on the ground or in social movements is perhaps the most significant factor in shaping meaningful participation in formal peace processes and that has the best prospect of contributing to transformative resilience for peace and to concrete measures for prevention.

But sporadic involvement of youth in formal peace processes will not necessarily help in solving the structural sources of conflict or the enduring issues of exclusion and mistrust. Furthermore, there are multiple pathways to peace and the prevention of violent conflict seen in diverse forums for participation and settlement. It is through this prism that the peacebuilding world has perhaps the most to learn from endogenous and resilient youth endeavours to build peace, including what this implies for meaningful political participation from a youth perspective.

This approach recognises that the challenges of sustaining peace are not subject to simple sequential processes. It contests the narrowly defined notions of formal peace processes and thus the rigid distinction between inclusion in these processes as opposed to informal ones. It appreciates that the role of young women and men in formal peace settlements is inextricably connected to their wider roles in support of these processes within their communities and societies. These notions of inclusion contest narrow definitions of peace as associated with formal political settlements, in favour of the need to address the everyday experiences of young people’s social, political and economic exclusion.

Viewing inclusion through the prism of youth challenges the silos and defies the segmentation of peace processes between elite processes and more grassroots engagements, between formal and informal processes, between separate typologies of violence and conflict, and between peacebuilding, developmental, human rights and humanitarian sectors. Rather than seeing peace as a conclusive outcome, peacebuilding is recognised and experienced as an enduring process led by women and men, old and young.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.