From internecine strife to counterinsurgency operations, war is immediately present in the lives of far too many people. In particular, children and young people are affected by armed conflict like no one else. Youth are combatants in wars, as well as the victims of horrendous wartime atrocities. However, young people's voices are rarely heard when it comes to key decisions regarding war and peace.
In Australia, people as young as 17 bravely volunteer to serve in our Defence Forces, knowing full well that they place their lives in the hands of our Government when they sign the contract. When wars erupt, it is the young people on the frontline that live out the consequences of politicians' decisions. Of the 21 Australian soldiers killed so far in Afghanistan, two thirds were younger than 30. Elsewhere, youth are forced to fight against their will. Foul and evil gangs like the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda gather new recruits by way of raiding and kidnapping. By way of initiation, these children and youth are made to commit horrific acts that isolate them from their families and communities and inure them to further atrocities. Much of their time as combatants is thickly swathed in a haze of dangerous and addictive narcotics that numbs them to their suffering and that of their victims.
As well as wielding the guns, youth stand in the crosshairs. When conflict comes their way, young people lose their homes, families, health and communities. If they are lucky enough to escape with their lives, war whittles down their chances of an adequate education and a decent livelihood. The final tragedy is that ongoing trauma can lead young people back into violence, this time as the perpetrators.
Achieving a more peaceful world - that is, one free of armed conflict - is the stated goal of Western governments and the United Nations. Young people are unarguably key stakeholders in achieving this goal. Conflict and aggression will always exist, but with strong institutions, transparent governance and an active civil society, stopping these conflicts going "hot" becomes possible. Strengthening youth participation in each of these areas is vital. Australia can and should embrace this.
Some may argue that, in democracies, young people can have adequate influence over decisions about war and peace through the ballot box. However, democracy is a numbers game, based on majority rule. The numbers for Australia's young people do not look favourable. Australia has a rapidly ageing population. Our median age is 37.4 years, which is set to rise further. Young people occupy a shrinking proportion of our total population. The result is that our power to influence politicians' decisions through the ballot box is limited.
Another obstacle to young people's participation in achieving a more peaceful world is widespread negative stereotypes of young people. Young people in Australia or "Gen Y" are typically viewed as selfish, lazy and impatient. Media coverage of young people focuses on the bad news stories, where youth feature as a threat to peace, law and order. These stereotypes ignore the fact that a third of 18 to 24 year olds regularly volunteer their time to help their community. They also ignore the positive participation of young people in business, sport and academia.
To overcome these barriers to young people actively participating in conflict prevention, resolution and peace building, two things should happen. Firstly, young people need to be empowered to act as global citizens dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflict. Empowerment comes through education. At primary and high school, students need to learn about the impact that violence (at all scales) can have and how they can manage conflict without it. Plenty of non-government organisations have developed educational resources that could help form a comprehensive and sensitive curriculum for peace and conflict studies at school.
Secondly, we need get rid of the notion that young people are only capable of contributing and participating where traditional "youth issues" are concerned. War is a youth issue. As a practical step, the Commonwealth Ministers for Defence, Defence Materiel, Foreign Affairs and Veterans' Affairs, and their relevant Departments could consult with young servicemen and women, youth peak bodies, youth-run organisations and community youth representatives about matters like crisis resolution, asylum seekers, defence budgeting, deployment and the health and wellbeing of defence personnel. Here, the Government should gather the views of a wide and representative range of young people.
The final step that needs to be taken is one for Australian society as a whole. People of all ages need to reject the fear and hatred that fuel bloodshed. It is imperative that we develop an Australian culture that promotes not just tolerance (which does so easily crumble), but respect and empathy for the humanity and fundamental rights of all people. We need to start public discussions about the media's role in promoting peace. We need to question whether we are doing enough to protect human rights. We also need to take a hard look at ourselves and question our judgements and assumptions about others.
The hackneyed phrase "youth are the future" still has currency. Well, what sort of future are we looking forward to if we choose to let it be riddled with bullet holes? Better still, let's look at young people as a critical part of the here and now. War is an urgent problem now, young people are being affected now, and now is the time for young people to be a part of the solution.