3 July, 2022


A Child Of War Speaks Her Mind To The Commonwealth

By Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf

Your Excellencies, Respected dignitaries, distinguished panelists, eminent delegates, observers, ladies and gentlemen,

It is indeed an honour to be addressing emerging leaders of Commonwealth nations that hail from four of the world’s inhabited continents. What is an even greater privilege is to be invited to present at the first-ever international youth conference to be held in Sri Lanka, my country, my home. It is equally heartening to have among the twenty-five Sri Lankan delegates at the Commonwealth Youth Forum 2013, a former LTTE combatant, a youth from the indigenous community and a differently-abled youth.

As opening speaker at the sitting on Reconciliation and Social Cohesion, I have been tasked with setting the context for deliberations of the plenary, and exploring the notions of Reconciliation and Social Cohesion and their necessity. Given that the objective of the Commonwealth Youth Forum is to provide a platform to link policy with action, I would like to take the liberty of going one step further in suggesting reasons why youth can play a powerful role in Reconciliation and Social Cohesion. I will conclude my remarks with recommendations for a broad strategy that can be developed by Commonwealth Member States towards achieving that end.

I am a child of the war. I was born at a time when the conflict that ravaged my country, Sri Lanka, was at a height and eventually counted for over three-decades. Growing up in my beloved motherland, as my brothers and sisters of the present generation, for the first 20 years of our lives we were well acquainted with bloodshed, with brutality and with insecurity. Growing up, living with war became a way of life. This fact makes us belong to a critical generation in our country’s history because we as youth of Sri Lanka are currently undergoing a dual transition: From youth to adulthood against the larger backdrop of conflict to peace transition.

This brings me to the logical question: why is this dual transition important to consider in reconciliation and social cohesion? It is important because it means that we, the youth of today, have a unique responsibility, unlike any other generation before us, to foster reconciliation and social cohesion in our countries, regions and world.

It has been famously said that youth is wasted on the young. George Bernard Shaw was quite clear in expanding on this, his quote. He defined the statement as derogatory when he said that “young people are brainless, and don’t know what they have; they squander every opportunity of being young, on being young.” Basically he meant that youth’s waste their youth doing youthful things of little use and those who are mature enough to do useful things have little youth.

Today, in the twenty first century however, young people are beginning to reverse the fallacy in this belief. Today, it is not merely impractical but also undesirable for young people to remain beneficiaries only in a process that will deeply impact their lives, their future and the future of their world. Hence, we are humbled to be a part of a generation where there is an ever-growing awareness on the need for youth to be stakeholders in national, regional and international governance mechanisms. Such awareness includes the realization that youth can, want and indeed must contribute towards the making of a better world.

There is beginning to emerge in recent times a movement to institutionalize and structure youth engagement which is to be welcomed and strengthened. There exist a handful of concrete examples worthy of mention: At the national level, a process for youth-led reconciliation was institutionalized in Sri Lanka with the setting up of the Sri Lankan Youth Parliament in 2010 following the conclusion of the country’s three-decade armed struggle in 2009. 25 percent of the youth parliamentarians at the Sri Lankan Youth Parliament are from previously conflict-affected areas and hence are given a democratic and legitimate space to represent and voice their concerns and aspirations for reconciliation and social cohesion at both national and local levels. This is a poignant example of where the local feeds into the national, a key requisite for genuine and lasting reconciliation. Sri Lanka will be hosting the World Conference on Youth in May 2014 which was proposed in recognition of a combinations of current global realities: the fact that the youth of this world need to have their effective participation increased in the decision making processes of the post-2015 development agenda, facilitate effective partnerships, and establish a follow- up mechanism that support young people as partners in the global implementation of the post -2015 development agenda at the level of the United Nations.

From a regional perspective, the Commonwealth set up a process for dialogue between youth and Heads of Government at Commonwealth Youth Forums and is going one step further at this, the 9th Commonwealth Youth Forum to set up a Commonwealth Youth Council which will be the official voice for the young people of the Commonwealth.

At the international level, the United Nations Secretary General has made youth one of his second term priorities: he has recently appointed a special envoy on youth while UN-HABITAT have taken the lead in lobbying for a Permanent Forum on Youth to be in-built within the United Nations system.

Having set the context, I would now like to turn your attention to the concepts of Reconciliation and Social Cohesion and their necessity. The following remarks are not meant to be comprehensive as such will not be possible in the limited time allocated to me together with the vast body of literature and opinion that is available on the subject. However, what I seek to do is highlight key aspects of the concepts within a larger awareness of Democracy.

Democracy is a system for managing difference without recourse to violence. Democracy, in other words, is a system for managing conflict. A functioning democracy, then, is built on a dual foundation: One, a set of fair procedures for peacefully handling the issues that divide a society, that is, the political and social structures of governance and two, a set of working relationships between the groups involved. The conclusion to all this is that relationships matter. And that is where reconciliation comes in. It is important to point out that the relationship which must be addressed is not simply that between parliamentarians or leaders, but between whole communities.

Reconciliation is a complex term. There is little agreement on its definition. This is mainly because reconciliation is both a goal and a process. A second source of complexity is that the process of reconciliation happens in many contexts. The focus of my remarks is reconciliation after sustained and widespread violent conflict.

Reconciliation is an over-arching process which includes the search for truth, justice, forgiveness, and healing. At its simplest, it means finding a way to live alongside former enemies –to coexist with them, to develop the degree of cooperation necessary to share our society with them, so that we all have better lives together than we have had separately.

Politics is a process to deal with the issues that have divided us in the past. Reconciliation is a parallel process that redesigns the relationships between us. While achieving reconciliation is no easy task the effort carries a great reward: effective reconciliation is the best guarantee that the violence of the past will not return. There is a moral case to be made that reconciliation is the right thing to do. But there is also a powerful pragmatic argument to be made: positive working relationships generate the atmosphere within which governance can thrive, while negative relations will work to undermine even the best system of governance.

And so we reach our basic definition of reconciliation: it is a process through which a society moves from a divided past to a shared future.

Social cohesion on the other hand, refers to people’s relationships and interactions in society. Social cohesion is a social process which aims to consolidate plurality of citizenship by reducing inequality and promoting space for political and judicial accountability for injustice.

It is the meeting point of social democracy and political democracy, where human beings have the capacity to influence the decision-making processes that affect their lives. A cohesive society is a prerequisite for political democracy and social stability. It is evident that a society with evenly distributed wealth is better able to achieve higher levels of productivity and consequently generate greater economic growth in the long term. The creation of more social space to enable citizens to develop their full selves and decent standards of living is the best mechanism for reducing social disintegration.

I would like to draw your attention to the relevance of the subject of Reconciliation and Social Cohesion to Sri Lanka. Initial youth uprisings planted the seeds of the three-decade ethnic conflict. Both the ignition of the ethnic conflict and insurrections have stemmed from our Universities as well as from other sections of the youth population. Hence, the case for involving youth in the processes of Reconciliation and Social Cohesion are self-explanatory.

However, there are unique reasons why youth have special power and potential in reconciliation and social cohesion for countries around the world including those of the Commonwealth.

First, young people are more open to change – Young people are searching for new ideas and open to new challenges while adults have already formed their dogmatic discourses.

Second, young people are future-oriented. Since they have more time ahead, they are willing to try alternatives and are more bound to “forget” the past than those who were directly involved in a painful moment of history.

Third, many revolutions were started and led by youth. Students often have more time to think, read, meet colleagues and develop ideas. They also have more time to engage different activists groups. Students historically have always been in the vanguard of social change.

Fourth, youth also create ideas that solve old problems in innovative ways. Youth seek for alternative roots of power and influence.

Fifth, young people do not tend to be burdened with past prejudices and predispositions that their elders sometimes carry forward into the future and therefore, can be an effective enabler for breaking dangerous trends and attitudes in conflict affected societies.

Sixth and perhaps the most important case for calling for a role for youth in peace building is because a peace agreement’s endurance depends on whether the next generations accept or reject it, how they are socialized during the peace process, and their perceptions of what that peace process has achieved.

I would like to recall a broad strategy that I proposed at Sri Lanka’s National Conference on the Role of Youth in Reconciliation held in January this year in Colombo.

First, the call must be for State-led programme for structured and constructive youth engagement. This must essentially involve a multi-faceted strategy that attends to the minds, the hearts and souls of the young people of the country.

Second, the youth dimension must be mainstreamed into all existing national policies and plans.

Third, cooperation from the international community in supporting such efforts must be welcomed mainly in the areas of sharing experiences of success stories of youth involvement in peace-building in other post-war contexts.

Fourth, the sharing of experiences and learning can also be a useful platform to engage young members of diaspora communities of former conflict states. Therefore, youth engagement will and must have connections to our multilateral and bilateral foreign policy efforts.

Fifth, further research, study, understanding and awareness of the integral link between youth unrest, conflict and reconciliation must be put in place immediately.

Finally, it is important that we, as youths of today come together, in work and in play, to build bridges, break shackles and shed prejudices. We are not the future, because the future is here already. It is time for us to stand together as one. We must capitalize on the fact that we have the emotional experience of war to propel us to consolidate peace once and for all. We have a compelling responsibility like no other generation before us. It is time that we find new space and strengthen existing ones in order to do so. The time is now.

I wish you fruitful deliberations and thank you for your attention.


*Text of presentation delivered by Salma Yusuf at the 9th commonwealth youth forum 2013 at the Magam Ruhunupura International Convention Centre, Hambantota, Sri Lanka

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Tadpole (゜゜)~ George Bernard Shaw was quite clear in expanding on this, his quote.Tadpole (゜゜)~

    Shaw of Camden was as gay as the Tatte Motte Sinhala Buddhist paedophiles.

    Sometimes overturning brutal regimes takes time and costs lives. I wish it weren’t so. I really, really do.I mean, I know that’s hard for some people to believe, but, you know, I just don’t.

    Salma, it takes a long time to become young and young has no age so don’t try to fly that stupid (of course processed and edited) kite so high- a perspective has many vanishing points not just 2 or 3. Age Concern may sue you; take care.

    Democracy exists only when the government listens to the people. What you have is the opposite where the people fear the government a totalitarian regime.

    Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.- A.R.

    • 0

      “….Democracy exists only when the government listens to the people. What you have is the opposite where the people fear the government a totalitarian regime.”

      Then how come the UPFA keeps winning elections over and over again with over 60% of the vote and the UNP has no hope or leader – only a dithering leadership council? Don’t tell us that the elections are rigged, because the TNA won in the north in a landslide.

      “…. Sometimes overturning brutal regimes takes time and costs lives. I wish it weren’t so. I really, really do.I mean, I know that’s hard for some people to believe, but, you know, I just don’t.”

      Such as what happened to VP and the LTTE no doubt.

      “….Shaw of Camden was as gay as the Tatte Motte Sinhala Buddhist paedophiles.”

      Ask the Pope and the Canadians about pedophiles.

      • 0

        Tadpole (゜゜)~ again with over 60% of the vote Tadpole (゜゜)~

        you conveniently forgot the folk who don’t vote because they have no confidence in politics and politicians- A politician is one who speaks the truth and sandwiches them with lies- George Bernard Shaw

        Tadpole (゜゜)~ what happened to VP and the LTTE no doubt Tadpole (゜゜)~

        that’s the animal created by you banana Tamils – the mother of all stepfathers rather than the Scottish way which you wish for only now! When would you be satisfied I wish I knew!

        Tadpole (゜゜)~Ask the Pope and the Canadians about pedophiles ゜゜)~ tadpole

        The existence of God is not the issue. God a being you are unable to conceive moron.

        Lies are sufficient to breed opinion, and opinion brings on substance.

        There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.

        Seoomb I’ve a Big Un O:-)

        (o|o) (o|o) ☆彡^5 ☆彡

      • 0

        How did they winning the election again and again , you not a kid the entire country knows rigging the vote
        You might disagree how a broad day light murderer still in parliament?
        Law in order is under Rajapaksa family
        Put a CJ then sack then put another puppet
        We can add more and more about your master’s victory

        • 0

          The obvious- very naïve of you! ;)


  • 0

    I request all our aging and leaders and poiliticians to hang up their boots and gloves and hand over to the younger generation. The future is theirs and they seem to know what to do judging from this speech. They do not carry the garbage which we have loaded into our brains.

    • 0

      Do you mean like Namal Rajapakse, Duminda Silva, The accused murderer and rapist of the Brit and russian?

      • 0

        Hope not. You have a point.

    • 0

      “the garbage”

      It’s all coming back to you but not to us because we have faith in ourselves.

  • 0

    An excellent speech. I wonder who wrote it?

  • 0

    It is a very powerful message to whatever the Govt in power but..
    what impact will it have on the Regime…
    you think that they do not know what you say..
    will they change..
    can you take it to the UNHRC…like Malala Yusuf did…?

    you know..words without action is useless….that is where you will encounter the real problems …

    All those killed in 1970…1989….2009 were Sinhala ..Tamil people who were once at your age dreamt ..lived and fought their way to make what you have said in your article a reality… There are still many Sinhala..Tamil youth in this Country who dream of it.. live ..want to make it a reality…you know..they continue to live under oppression.

    Other than CT…who else has published …how many translations of this article has been published in vernacular media..? Push the Authorities for it….then you will see the picture..

    Nevertheless You could not have said it better…it is great..

  • 0


  • 0

    A Tamil child soldier?

    How did she survive?

    • 0

      Mossad has got mewsical :)

      By eating only Muslims on Fridays!

  • 0

    Tadpole (゜゜)~ We are not the future, because the future is here already. It is time for us to stand together as one. We must capitalize on the fact that we have the emotional experience of war to propel us to consolidate peace once and for all. We have a compelling responsibility like no other generation before us. (゜゜)~ tadpole

    We don’t grow older, we grow riper.

    Margarine is butter made from imitation cows,

    if one bit you,

    you could ride it to hospital.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYlmyf1a8rY -Suppose you are living Koththu

    “DIE” I WANT IT ALL, “DIE” !


  • 0

    Initial youth uprisings planted the seeds of the three-decade ethnic conflict?????
    You don’t start with the day you were born.
    Start with the day the conflict started: 1948:

    Jayantha Dhanapala’s submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), 25 August 2010: ‘’The lessons we have to learn go back to the past – certainly from the time that we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948. Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality.Our inability to manage our affairs has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens. We need to rectify this bad governance and the first and foremost task before us is to undertake constitutional reform in order to ensure that we have adequate devolution of power. We need to have State reform; we need to have rule of law established; we need to ensure non discrimination amongst our citizens; we need to have devolution of power and a tolerance of dissent and a strengthening of democratic institutions” – http://www.scribd.com/doc/104705097/Conscientious-Sinhalese-Tell-LLRC

  • 0

    Youth Parliament,

    What’s the solution to this:

    ”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, Gananath Obeyesekere (a Sinhalese Buddhist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology), Economic & Political Weekly, VOL 47 No. 04, 28 January-03 February 2012

    ‘’My own set of immediate demands as a citizen are as follows—roll back the Eighteenth Amendment; restore the Seventeenth Amendment and the Constitutional Council with improvements; guarantee judicial independence and independence of all oversight bodies; stop political interference in and politicization of public institutions; take strong measures to prevent discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, language and religion; let law enforcement (meaning the ordinary law–not exceptional laws) take its own course, do not provide protection to erring political favourites; respect and protect free expression, association and assembly– adopt a policy of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’; adopt a zero tolerance policy on torture, abductions and involuntary disappearances; permit free and fair elections and respect the people’s will’’ – An Ideology of Reconciliation Cannot be Built Without Basic Ingredients of Democracy and Rule of Law, Dr. Deepika Udagama (Head, Department of Law, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka), 15 August 2012, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/9627#more-9627

  • 0

    JSC educated village youth join the armed forces and learn the fine art of killing fellow humans in times of war and peace as directed by politicians.
    They thus have a future as feared – not respected – citizens with a cushy future with a pension.
    They shape the future of the nation more than others who waste time on education to become slaves of whatever regime which ‘captures’ power.
    Today,the best job is that of an MP – not much learning is necessary.

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