Opinion Piece on UNAC ‘Youth as Peacebuilders Forum

On November 14 – 15, 2017 a great injustice happened in Vancouver.

At first glance, one would think the ‘UNAC Youth as Peacebuilders Forum’ would be the pinnacle of youth engagement, the historic breaking of adult oppression on youth voices – but, unsurprisingly, it was another stage where youth were vehemently oppressed and sidelined.

Advertised as 130 youth delegates from across Canada, a misnomer by the UNAC, the conference in actuality, was filled with youth predominantly from British Columbia. Nonetheless, 130 youth volunteered their time from October to November for consultations which came up with what youth felt were issues that needed to be addressed and to be recommend to global adults in power.

As a youth, I personally have experience of the patronizing and tokenistic fluff that adults in power try to feed us. But, with this conference and the passing of the UN Security Council Resolution 2250 (the youth resolution that pointed to the need for youth inclusion in all levels of decision-making when dealing with peacekeeping and peacebuilding), I thought maybe the world was finally ready to listen to youth voices.

So, on November 14 I woke up hopeful. I put on the “smart casual” dress code – which covertly translated as “don’t look like a youth, but like people who adults would actually want to listen to; no comfort, heels and dress shirt” – and got on public transit. At the convention center, I was greeted by 130 youth from varying degrees of formal clothing, all trying to look their best, having lunch. The first half of the conference was dominated by speeches from ministers and adults who spoke pretty words which had no value to them. Taking more time as each adult went past their 3-minute time limit – stealing the time that was for youth activists, who were and currently are doing amazing work both in their countries and internationally, to speak. In fact, all youth-related aspects of the conference were shortened, because of course, adults are more important at a tokenized youth event.

In addition to our time being stolen, our recommendations were pushed aside. The second day was when we were scheduled to present our recommendations to adults in power. The adults who showed up were Minister Bibeau and General Dallaire. Our Minister of Youth, Justin Trudeau was absent, as expected. His title had been on the schedule but then silently removed as the days came closer for the UNAC conference. Now, what wasn’t expected was that he was just downstairs at a UN Conference with Angelina Jolie. The UN Conference that we, as youth, were blocked and sidelined from. There was no information given to us about the conference below, even though, according to the Canadian government website, one of the two main focuses of peacekeeping at the conference was supposed to be “Youth as Peacebuilders”. Leaving us in the dust, and only having time to take pictures with Angelina Jolie, but not address his responsibilities as the Minister of Youth is who Justin Trudeau apparently is.

Instead of Justin Trudeau, we had to deal with the patronization and tokenistic speech of Minister Bibeau, General Dallaire, and Kate White (the UNAC president). To give one example, one of our recommendations was for youth to be paid for unpaid internships, activist work, or work that would be paid if we weren’t considered “youth” or “inexperienced”. Personally, knowing youth who have lived in homeless shelters because of their situation, this is a huge issue. There are youth who are being forgotten and who must choose food and shelter over pursuing their careers, education, and activism work. But, when we presented this recommendation, it was not heard

Indeed, Minister Bibeau of International Development and La Francophonie responded with her own experience of working unpaid in Morocco for four months. She stated that working unpaid as a youth led her to be chosen as a minister. She did not address her privilege to have the means to survive in Morocco for those four months, the ease of access she had to travel due to her white mannerisms and look, the difference in economies from when she was a youth to now, and many other privileged aspects that allowed her to go to Morocco for four months unpaid.

On the other hand, General Dallaire and his doctor who came up to speak next, first spoke on youth empowerment. I had liked Dallaire, he had seemed very pro-youth, but after a while, I realized that his words were hollow. He could only say phrases like fight and change the system because he had no actual power in government. His words were pretty because he was the face of his own foundation and initiative. But when he and his doctor were confronted with the recommendation of youth paid, they slipped up. They blatantly said “pay your dues” and that “suffering now will bring reward later”. What they both failed to understand was that, if youth are choosing shelter, food, basic needs over activism and/or their career and they sacrifice their paid work time for unpaid work, they will suffer. They won’t be around to receive the supposed benefits.

Both Minister Bibeau and General Dallaire spoke on the inexperience of youth and how unpaid work provides a way to gain that experience. Who gets to decide when we’ve had sufficient experience? Who gets to rule which experience is considered valuable? Who gets to choose which experience isn’t worthy to be noted? They do. Adults in power do. They basically looked at us and told us that we had a lack of experience. They completely overlooked the fact that youth have experience. Regardless of the quantity of experience, the quality is, in my opinion, what counts. As mentioned above, youth are in homeless shelters, we are being oppressed, we understand what is going on in the world, and we are continually learning. Our personal experience should never be thought less than someone’s privileged experience in Morocco. But, the awful thing was that the youth in that room were handpicked by the UNAC, meaning we all had experience doing work in youth peace and security. And instead of being recognized and having a reciprocal discussion, we were told that we were inexperienced because of our age.

The last adult to speak was Kate White. The day prior, she had said that “because of [the sponsors] grace, you are here, doing this work”, which angered me for obvious reasons, so I was hesitant to hear what she had to say. My hesitation then turned to anger. She spoke slowly and emotionally, as if she was a proud parent speaking to a child who pooped in the toilet for the first time. Kate told us how peacebuilding started at home with your “younger brother”, that it started with being nicer to others on the street. She was completely oblivious that we were all there trying to make a global change, or maybe she didn’t care. But then she stood in front of 130 youth and said that “you are my peace”. I immediately wanted to stand and yell that I didn’t care if I was her peace, I wanted peace. She completely undermined all our work by making us unwilling constituents of her comfort levels, by placing her needs above ours. I attended the conference not to comfort her or to be a pawn in the patronization of youth but to actually make a change.

Naturally by the time the conference ended, I was furious. Our work wasn’t used to make change, but to appease these adults, to meet their expectations. These adults weren’t there to hold a reciprocal dialogue, but to exercise and reinforce their power.

As a last sign of hope, I went to the reception. Big mistake. I sat for an hour listening to Ken Mariash, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Kate White, and Minister Sajjan speaking at me while exclaiming how the event was put on because they loved youth.

Ken Mariash, in particular, infuriated me. The owner of the Pan Pacific Hotel and a director on the UNAC board. He not only blatantly exclaimed that North and South Korea would never have peace but called Kim Jong Un, “Kim Jong Young” then had the audacity to bash Trump’s administration, all the while using Trump’s term, “Rocket Man” to describe Kim Jong Un. A little background to this, President Trump has continually shown a lack of respect to the situation in the Korean Peninsula by calling Kim Jong Un a “maniac”, “little rocket man”, and “madman”. He has been criticizing South Korea for not paying America for protection, and for lack of action. The words that Trump has used to describe Kim Jong Un are both unprofessional and dehumanizing. The names do not show understanding or tolerance of the delicate situation and the heated tensions regarding North Korea. The criticism to South Korea is just not true. Negotiations and work to better inter-Korean relations has always been the forefront for South Korea, and South Korea and America share the costs for the US-South Korean Military Alliance. So, as Ken Mariash stood in front of me and my fellow youth and disregarded the history between North and South Korea, and used the term that Trump coined, I saw how mockingly he looked at the situation. As a Korean, these words coming from someone who holds so much power is extremely hurtful and maddening. He did not have any respect for my country, the rising tension between my people, and the stress that these negotiations between North and South Korea bring. Korea’s division is not a joke.

I am scared for the world if these privileged older adults who patronized and tokenized us are the ones making global decisions. The long-lasting changes may not affect their generation but it will affect ours.

Luckily, not all youth are taking this slap-in-the-face lying down. We are writing letters, starting a dialogue, discussing solutions, discussing our next steps, and supporting each other – the conference may have been to tokenize and break our voices, but we have regrouped and are stronger than ever.


Post written and illustrated by Youth Activist Miranda

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*All views expressed in this blog post belong to the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.