Colombo Telegraph

A Child Of War Speaks Her Mind To The Commonwealth

By 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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