The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sida and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute hosted this year’s Civil Society Forum. An open panel discussion was held with four young human rights advocates regarding the role of young people in overcoming shrinking civic space.
Topics included the democratic inclusion of youth, the role of young people and civil society in democratic processes, as well as the Swedish government’s and Civil Society Organisations’ (CSO) obligations and responsibilities in their continued support of combating shrinking civic space. The panelists touched upon general issues of democracy and shrinking civic space, as well as regional and local matters that they were involved in.
While the four panelists come from different countries and areas of focus, they all share a common dedication human rights, and have gained much experience within the field at a young age. It was made clear from the panel discussion that the youth – their issues and their voices – are not only a matter of the future, but of the present as well.
Our role is not for tomorrow, our role starts today.
Such were the words of Dalia Al-Mokdad – an ambassador for the Adyan Foundation in Lebanon. The panel furthermore consisted of: Dennis Mungo – the executive director of Youth Alive! Kenya (YAK), who has worked for eight years as a human rights officer in the Kenyan Correction Services; Yasmin Ullah – a research coordinator at the Free Rohingya Coalition; and Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, founder of the Rise up movement, and one of the five youth speakers at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year.
Inclusion Does Not Mean to Be Occasionally Inclusive
All youth speakers shared a strong wish for further inclusion of youth in decision making, and in democratic- and development processes.
It was emphasised that it is not enough to bring the youth to the conversation, especially when their voices are often ultimately dismissed. Vanessa Nakate stated that the voice of the youth often carries little weight and that many times they are only invited to the table for the display rather than with the genuine intent of inclusion. Furthermore the panel highlighted the importance of including young people in all issues, not just those regarding youth or the future.
Youth should discuss issues of youth, and youth should discuss general issues as well. Inclusion does not mean to be occasionally inclusive or just in specific sectors – Dalia Al-Mokdad
The panelists emphasized the need for the Swedish government and CSOs to offer a strong partnership with – and support for – young people. Not only in terms of inviting them to participate in the conversation, but also by supporting and encouraging that participation, as well as engaging in capacity building and empowering the youth in order to create change. Highlighted factors were, amongst other: access to relevant education and training, protection, and opportunities to associate with, be represented, and participate in political, social and economic spheres of life.
Dennis Mungo stated:
The democratic inclusion of youth is based on the premise that youth is empowered to amplify their voice
Is There Diversity in The Democratic Process?
The panel discussion also highlighted the importance of local anchoring. Dalia Al Mokdad expressed that the work for and with the democratic processes should be placed in the context of the region and culture in which it takes place. Plans and strategies should be in consideration of local needs rather than international interests.
In the same vein, Dennis Mungo stated that Sweden should continue its long term support of youth movements and youth organisations, while recognizing and adhering to the priorities and needs identified by the organisations themselves.
The panelists emphasised that youth means diversity; to acknowledge a multitude of voices and issues that will differ across regions, boarders and societies. This diversity must also be included in the democratic process.
The Youth’s Approach to Human Rights
The interrelations between democracy and other issues were highlighted by Yasmin Ullah who underlined the relevance of an intersectional approach. She stressed the importance of understanding community dynamics, gender dynamics, and to engage with people in their lived experiences. Furthermore, she declared a need to address these issues at the same time we address the issue of democratic transition.
Democratic transition cannot be void of women’s voices and understanding that without women at the backbone of the approach there would be no transition at all
Similarly, Vanessa Nakate acknowledged the climate crisis and its correlation with peace building and democracy:
We need to acknowledge that this is a crisis that not only affects natural resources but also affects the peace in communities
During the discussion the panelists also touched upon the matter of human rights in relation to democracy. Yasmin Ullah questioned the emphasis placed on the democratic process, and the lack of emphasis given to the human rights documentation and commitment in Myanmar.
[…] economy or democracy cannot be divorced from people’s well-being.
This statement came with a call for Sweden to emphasise accountability and to ensure protection of the youth and the voices of people.
What mainly can be recognised from this panel is the wish for, and importance of, allowing youth space, recognition, space and capacity in the democratic process. There is a fierce capability and dedication amongst the youth. It is our responsibility to include, empower, and support them in their efforts to affect and shape not only their future, but their present as well.
In the words of Yasmin Ullah:
Our messages might not be as diplomatic; our messages might not be as well–crafted but out sincerity should be prioritized