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OP-ED: The Key Is Youth Participation

Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni*

STRASBOURG, France, Mar 26 2012 (IPS) - When the secretary-general of the United Nations recently said that failing to invest in the one billion young people of the world “is a false economy”, he certainly had more in mind than just a useful business idea.

In fact, Mr. Ban Ki-moon fully acknowledged the legitimate demands of young people for a life in freedom and dignity. With a view to recent events in the Arab world, he did not hide his satisfaction that young people today show a growing resolve to use their energy and courage to address “some of the most difficult issues we face”.

Only by working together with young people, he underlined, can the international community meet current challenges.

The key to progress is participation. Youth participation has always had this dual face: as an opportunity granted (or withheld) by society in function of its own economic and political needs; and, as a critical and urgent demand of young people themselves, who all too often see their life chances evaporating in the hot air of daily politics.

It is a good thing that the “International Year of Youth”, which ended this August, made at least a serious attempt to keep youth participation on the international agenda.

Participation is an important point of reference in all international treaties dealing with human rights, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. The outcome document of the recent U.N. High-Level Meeting on Youth mentions participation as a policy standard not fewer than 11 times.

Whilst there is general consensus that participation is positive, there may be less harmony on the conceptual details. In 2010, a resolution of the Arab region calling for “effective” youth participation was endorsed even by the most autocratic leaders. Some of them did not remain long in office as soon as young people took this message seriously.

Here, in Europe, the political preconditions for genuine youth participation are however relatively clear. It relies on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation founded in 1949, has installed the necessary legal and judicial instruments to translate these values into everyday reality and monitor their effective implementation.

Moreover, by developing innovative solutions and widely distributing examples of good participatory practice among its 47 member states, regional authorities, civil society organisations and the other stakeholders, the Council of Europe sets the pace for the whole region particularly in the youth field.

Detailed policy recommendations on youth participation and the future of civil society (1997), children’s participation in family and social life (1998), the participation of young people in local and regional life (2004), citizenship and participation of young people in public life (2006), the evaluation, auditing and monitoring of participation and participation policies at local and regional level (2009) and education for democratic citizenship and human rights education (2002, 2010) bear witness of the political will of European leaders to achieve meaningful youth involvement.

Since the 1970s, representative non-governmental youth organisations have been closely involved in the strategic debates of the Council of Europe in the area of youth policy, and they co-decide on financial and programme matters.

Is that enough?

As the secretary-general of the Council of Europe himself pointed out recently, our continent is “not in any way immune against social unrest, discontent and alienation.”

Movements of indignant young people have sprung up in various European countries. They are triggered by little or no job prospects even for the highly qualified; by frustration over the chasm between words and deeds; by the quickly widening social gap between rich and poor; by frictions between ethnic groups.

Europe must see this youth unrest as a wake-up call, if not a chance. It must self-critically analyse its political institutions. If so many young people feel left behind, if 20 percent or more do not find a job, if many can only show their utter contempt for political decision-makers, then our system has a real problem.

Such a situation is not sustainable, and it is certainly not conducive to the solution of global challenges such as the MDGs or intercultural dialogue. New ways of real youth participation must be conceived and tested. That will be the task of the forthcoming years.

*Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni is Director General of Programmes at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.

© 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

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