Protests are one of the few spaces that young people have to make their voices heard today. In order to achieve long-term peace, conditions need to be created for young people's organization and the dangerous exclusion of young people at all decision-making levels needs to be combated, both in Sweden and Colombia. It writes Joelle Golmann, organizational developer at PeaceWorks, located in Colombia.
Just before Easter, the Association for Development Issues organized a long-awaited seminar on the theme of youth and peace, focusing on Colombia, among other places. The title of the seminar was "The forgotten peace actors" and that is exactly what young people are, both in Sweden and in Colombia. Although it should be obvious that young people are recognized as valuable actors with important perspectives needed to find sustainable solutions for peace, they are shut out and allowed to inherit solutions that they have not been allowed to influence. This entails both a violation of their right to participate and solutions that are not sustainable.
Colombia has been a country hit hard by war for more than 50 years. Historically, the Colombian government has committed itself to resolving the Colombian armed conflict through military means. Multi-billion sums are invested in military activities to create security and resolve the conflict in the country through violence and weapons. At the same time, it is mainly civilians who are affected by the weapons.
During the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, there has been an increase in armed violence throughout the country between the two actors. An increase in violence against civil society by other, illegal, groups has also been reported. Young people, who today make up about 25 percent of the country's total population, are particularly vulnerable and young human rights defenders are stigmatized, threatened and even murdered. Lack of access to education and the labor market means that participation in the war is often the only economic and productive alternative for many young people in the country. Participating in military activities also gives young people status, power and legitimacy and is something that is encouraged by the state and its institutions. Initiatives from senior decision-makers directly involve young people in the armed conflict. Examples of this are informant networks that link young people to the military intelligence service or compulsory military service. In addition, young people in Colombia are strategic targets for both armed and unarmed actors in the conflict. Forced recruitment, forced prostitution, extrajudicial executions and forced relocation are just some of the realities facing young people in the country.
Against this background, not only do many youth movements demand new definitions of concepts such as security and defense, understood on the basis of non-violence, but also work actively to create a positive change. Young human rights defenders take an active role in finding solutions to the conflict by organizing themselves to defend human rights and promote a culture of peace based on non-violent principles around themes such as denial of arms, antimilitarism, gender equality and peasant rights.
Despite the particularly vulnerable situation of young human rights defenders, they do not receive the protection and attention that other, more historical and organized, adult groups receive from international aid. Nor do youth organizations have the national and international support networks that more "established" human rights defenders such as women's organizations and children's rights organizations can count on when faced with threats and security risks. In fact, youth organizations face many of the challenges facing other actors in organized civil society, and have to face even greater difficulties due to the population group they represent. The fact that youth organizations are often at the bottom of the hierarchy within civil society and within human rights organizations can be shown in several ways. Among other things, by the fact that crimes committed against young human rights defenders are often incorrectly explained on the basis of factors such as that the victim has been involved in criminal activities.
Young people are thus not only severely affected by the conflict in Colombia, but can and are prepared to take an active part in creating a peaceful society. Nevertheless, with their absence, they shine not only in the ongoing peace negotiations, but at almost all levels of the formal peace-promoting processes. There is a clear pattern of recognizing young people, mainly boys, as actors when it comes to war, not least through compulsory military service, but not as actors when it comes to work to create peace. Due to the fact that state actors and civil society actors do not see young people, regardless of gender, as valid peace actors with the capacity and right to decide over their own lives or as negotiating partners, their organization and ability to make their voices heard further is made more difficult.
In her debate article, Inger Ashing (Save the Children) writes on April 3, 2014 about the importance of young people's participation for peace and security. She also writes that young people's perceived conditions increasingly lead to social protests even in countries like Sweden. That sounds reasonable. Protests are created in response to what society looks like. As it looks today, protests are one of the few spaces young people have to make their voices heard. Hopefully, peace agreements can lead to a break from armed conflicts, but in order to achieve long-term peace, several things are needed. Conditions for young people's organization must be created and the dangerous exclusion of young people that occurs at all the decision-making levels must be combated, both in Colombia and in Sweden.