Empowering Youth to Build Peace

Youth conference

Director General Irina Bokova
© UNESCO/P. Chiang-Joo

On 16 June, 2015, the UNESCO Director-General, Ms Irina Bokova, launched UNESCO's new integrated Framework of Action - Empowering Youth to Build Peace - in the context of the International Conference on "Youth and the Internet: Fighting Radicalization and Extremism," held at UNESCO Headquarters on 16-17 June, 2015.

"We see the rise of a new generation of digital natives today," said the UNESCO Director-General. "Our task must be to empower a new generation of digital citizens at the global level – starting with education, new intercultural skills, and deeper media and information literacy. Our goal must be to support the positive civic engagement of young people and youth initiatives online, to support cohesive societies, to advance peace on the basis of respect, human rights and dialogue."

The Conference opened in the presence of Her Excellency Ms. Margarita Popova, Vice-President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Excellency Mr Mohamed Sameh Amr, Chairman of the UNESCO Executive Board, Ms Chafica Haddad, Chair of the UNESCO Information for All Programme, Ms Albana Shala, Chair of the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication, M. Daniel Zielinski, Directeur de Cabinet du Ministre de la Ville, de la Jeunesse et des Sports, France, as well as Mr Hugues Mingarelli, Managing Director, European External Action Service of the European Union.

More than 250 officials, experts, academics, youth activists, civil society leaders and media representatives attended the Conference, coming from all parts of the world.

Keynote speeches were given by Prof. Gilles Kepel, Professeur des Universités, France, and Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, India, followed by a leading intervention by Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s  Envoy on Youth. The Conference was organized with generous funding by the Republic of Bulgaria, the Arab Republic of Egypt and People's Republic of China, in the framework of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Information for All Programme and in partnership with UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.

The Director-General made the stakes clear in her opening statement.

“Today, 25,000 foreign terrorist fighters, from over 100 States, are active in Syria and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen -- most are young men, between 15 and 35 years old, but there are increasing numbers of young women,” she said. “Today, we must build the defences of peace in the minds of young women and men, and this must start also online, by mobilizing the full power of the Internet for peace.”

From socializing and entertainment to homework, the Internet has become an essential part of life for young people today, opening vast new opportunities for connecting and learning. At the same time, the Internet provides violent extremists with powerful tools to propagate hatred and violence and to identify and groom potential recruits, creating global online communities that promote radicalization, that promote hatred, intolerance as well as new forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

“All too often, the Internet can provide a powerful megaphone for violence,” said Irina Bokova. “It can be a platform for ideologies that reject human rights, that castigate diversity, that sow discord, often drawing on false visions of faith. Far too many young men and women cross from the ‘virtual’ to the ‘physical,’ to enrol with extremist groups.”

“Violent extremists are radicalising young men and women through the Internet – we must harness the Internet’s full potential for peace, to widen opportunities for dialogue and civic engagement, to nurture and take forward youth concerns and visions.”

This goal guides all of UNESCO’s action –- to advance new forms of global citizenship education, to bolster cultural literacy and build new bridges for intercultural dialogue, to develop stronger media and information literacy and support media development for human rights and peace, to provide young women and men with skills and opportunities to engage positively in their societies.

Empowering Youth to Build Peace is UNESCO’s new integrated Framework for Action, drawing on existing activities –including Global Citizenship Education, the NET-MED Youth project, implemented in 10 countries of the Mediterranean and the new social media campaign, #Unite4Heritage launched by the Director-General at the University of Baghdad in March to counter the propaganda of violent extremism.

The new Framework for Action is guided by a single objective: to equip young people with knowledge, skills and values that empower them to live peaceful, constructive and productive lives to engage as responsible global citizens and to be resilient to any form of abuse or manipulation, including radicalization and violent extremism.

A new component of the Framework for Action is Youth 2.0 -- Building Skills, Bolstering Peace, launched during the conference. This is designed to support young people in building new forms of global solidarity, including online, in resisting and countering radicalization and violent extremism.

This new action will move forward at four levels. It will, first, support multidisciplinary research on linkages between Youth, Internet, radicalization/de-radicalization, as well as research-informed policies and actions. It will also work to empower youth online communities and key youth stakeholders on topics relevant to counter-radicalization, by building their competencies and skills and by equipping them with creative tools and knowledge. Third, it will strengthen mobilization and cooperation between media professionals and practitioners to combat radicalization and online hate speech, with a focus on countries suffering tensions and conflict situations. Lastly, it will support supporting creative media campaign and outreach strategies targeting policy makers and opinion makers as well as the general public (including young audiences). 

“Our goal is to empower youth online,” said the Director-general, “to build their resilience against hate speech, radicalization and violent extremism, to empower their civic engagement online.”

These messages were echoed by Mr Mohamed Sameh Amr, Chairman of the UNESCO Executive Board, who spoke of the crucial importance of the Conference and this new work: “Youth will reinvent our future, a better future for all.”

Her Excellency Ms. Margarita Popova, Vice-President of the Republic of Bulgaria, spoke of the challenges facing young women and men across the world today, from alienation, poor opportunities, marginalization and discrimination -- highlighting their key role as “ambassadors and messengers for peace, for more peaceful societies.”

Mr. Daniel Zielinski, Directeur de Cabinet du Ministre de la Ville, de la Jeunesse et des Sports, presented the wide range of measure being introduced by the Government of France to prevent radicalization through an emphasis on renewed citizenship”, underlining the importance of “creating a community of destiny and shared values with young people.”

Mr. Hugues Mingarelli, Managing Director, European External Action Service of the European Union, spoke about the 2014 Communication of the Commission on preventing radicalization, stressing also the need to protect freedom of expression on the Internet.

Ms. Chafica Haddad, Chair of the UNESCO Information for All Programme, and Ms. Albana Shala, Chair of the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication presented the essential work of IFAP and the IPDC in these areas.

The International Conference is designed to support the action of States and the international community, by understanding more clearly the use of Internet in fueling violent extremism and by exploring effective tools in response. From a range of angles and experiences, the Conference will discuss the insight and experiences of Governments, international organizations, research and academia, as well as Internet companies, and present case studies from around the world. It will also focus on the rich, multifaceted landscape of youth online engagement, particularly youth-led initiatives that are paving the way ahead.

“Young women and men must have confidence in themselves, in their communities, in their futures,” said Irina Bokova. “They must know their own histories to defend those of others. Their rights must be respected, to share these with all humanity. This is the importance of this Conference, working with and for young women and men, to nurture their ideas, their imagination, their visons.”