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Bold leadership is necessary to curb violence against youth

Bonnie Cash

Young people around the world are leading movements for positive change, peace and justice. From leading the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States to protesting against the Myanmar military, young people are leading the way on global and domestic challenges but they are facing devastating repercussions. 

Too often, calls by young people to respect human rights, take action on climate change and engage in peacebuilding are met with violence and repression. The U.S. must act as a global leader to protect young people and their agency to create a better future.

Young people are the future, so why are they currently under attack by government and non-government armed groups? They are falsely labeled as the symptom or victims of conflict, rather than a critical part of the solution. By leading movements for positive change for tomorrow, many of them experience violence today.

In Myanmar, the military has shown no restraint against protestors. Over 700 people are reported to have been killed and more than 3,000 have been detained or sentenced since the military coup on Feb. 1. In the U.S, supporters of the BLM movement across the country have faced tear gas and low flying helicopters. Last month in Nigeria, kidnappers abducted 39 students, and in Afghanistan a gunman targeted a university. These are just a handful of examples showing how young people face threats to their security, wellbeing and lives on a daily basis. 

The youth population today is larger than it has ever been, currently standing at over 1.8 billion. Approximately one in four young people (408 million) live in areas affected by armed conflict or organized violence. Still, many young people step-up and take on essential roles such as mobilizers, peacebuilders, mediators and human rights defenders in their communities. 

In order to support these efforts, the U.S. must revitalize its global leadership and address the violence faced by young people domestically and globally. Supporting the fundamental human rights of young people while also recognizing the importance of youth in peace and security is only possible with meaningful policy change.

U.S. Reps. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), John Curtis (R-Utah) and David Trone (D-Md.) sponsored the Youth, Peace, and Security Act of 2020 last year to do exactly that. The legislation sought to empower young people around the world to legitimize their initiatives for peace and security in their communities. It also included policies that emphasize the safe and equal participation in decision-making as a human right, regardless of age.

By reintroducing and passing the Youth, Peace and Security Act, Congress will make a clear statement to the world that the U.S. is committed to meaningfully including youth in peace and security processes, policies and programs. If passed, this legislation would make the U.S. the first country to implement the three United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Youth, Peace and Security. 

As violence against youth escalates globally, there is an urgent need for the U.S. to act now. The U.S. Youth, Peace and Security Coalition, of which we are co-chairs, has called on Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to take both short- and long-term measures to legitimize youth-led movements and ensure their protection. Blinken should work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Congress to prioritize funding for youth- and women-led peacebuilding.

The U.S. should integrate the perspectives of young people into existing legislation and policy, such as the Global Fragility Strategy, the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and other broader government policies. The Biden administration should also appoint a U.S. special envoy on youth to ensure youth perspectives and concerns are incorporated into U.S. foreign policy at the highest level. 

USAID staff can work with youth globally to create an early warning and response system. This will ensure that reports of attacks committed against young human rights activists and peacebuilders are recorded and will aid the development of strategies to prevent future violence from occurring.

While Congress works on the Youth, Peace and Security Act, the rest of the U.S. government must act on these urgent recommendations. Young people are actively seeking to contribute to and create a better world. They should not be met with violence.

On our journey to reclaim and sustain global leadership, the U.S. must invest and protect the ingenuity, development and growth of young people. By addressing the violence against them, the U.S. can support efforts for positive change and a future that will reflect our values — inclusion, human rights, and freedom of speech, assembly and expression, among others — without fear of harm. 

Empowering and protecting young people of all backgrounds from around the world is a vital investment to build peace for generations to come. It must happen now. 

Vahe Mirikian is the assistant director for U.S. policy for Peace Direct. He is also the Government Advocacy subcommittee co-chair for the U.S. Youth, Peace and Security Coalition. Follow him on Twitter @vahemirikian. 

Megan Schleicher is the senior associate for policy and advocacy for the Alliance for Peacebuilding. She is also the co-chair for the U.S. Youth, Peace and Security Coalition. Follow her on Twitter @megschleicher.

Tags BLM David Trone Dean Phillips Grace Meng Myanmar protests Peace peacebuilders Peacebuilding police brutality Protests Susan Brooks

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