Youth Offer Perspectives on Peace at a Conference in Vienna

Vienna, Austria - “Communicating Change: Youth Perspectives on Peace” was the theme of the European Leadership Conference that opened July 1 at the United Nations building in Vienna. The defining character of this conference was the part that youth played in its organization and operation and their sense of being supported and encouraged by the wisdom, experience, and appreciation of their elders.

The conference was designed to support the UN International Year of Youth that began in August 2010. As a result, UPF received the support of the NGO Liaison office at Vienna and the United Nations Information Service, which promoted the Conference through its official channels. This publicity contributed to the 250 participants who registered online.

It is significant that UPF's third European Leadership Conference in 2011 took place in the Board Room of the International Atomic Energy Agency based at the United Nations in Vienna. This agency plays a major role in securing world peace in that it regulates and monitors the use of nuclear energy and the observance of international treaties associated with prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Director of the United Nations Information Service in Vienna, Mr. Janos Tisovszky, welcomed the conference participants. He mentioned that partnering with young people is essential for positive change and that this is supported by the International Year of Youth, which seeks to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. He also alluded to the unprecedented events of 2011 (a reference to the ‘Arab Spring’) and how social media provided a new dynamism, used not just for social interaction but as a way to promote global change and empower youth to be instrumental in realizing this change.

Peter Haider, Secretary General of UPF-Austria, called the International Year of Youth particularly relevant as the young generation has been at the forefront of peaceful revolutions and movements this year for more democracy and youth participation based on human rights and human dignity in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the world.

The contribution made by some outstanding young speakers who shared about their adventurous contributions towards peace through social entrepreneurship and active roles in global hot spots was extremely impressive. These young people convinced UPF’s Ambassadors for Peace and staff that they are indeed forging meaningful links with leaders of the future. The youth in turn were very appreciative of the platform that the conference offered them to interact with "wise elders" and the sense of appreciation and encouragement that this provide as a recognition of their efforts.

Just to mention some examples:Karim Rihan – An 18-year-old of Egyptian family background who just finishing high school in Vienna and spent his one-week midterm holiday in Tahrir Square in Cairo: "I saw old and young, women and men, rich and poor, Muslims and Christians fight for freedom and dignity in unity. For the first time I saw Muslims and Christians praying and eating together." His heart had compelled him to support change and to take his seat on an empty Austrian Airlines jet airliner bound for Egypt when everybody else was leaving Cairo!

Nicole Heydari - A cultural analyst in support of the US, Polish, and French forces in Afghanistan, now studying at Vienna’s prestigious School of Diplomacy: "I had to build my own credibility with Afghan leaders – eventually I became the resident expert and the military recognised the value of the information I gathered. I realised that many families’ land and property were being damaged by the road building initiated by the foreign military and that this caused much resentment. I could arrange and implement a scheme of compensation to resolve this issue. The best progress which I was a part of was the promotion of good relations between the foreign forces and the Afghan population. A famous Persian poet wrote 800 years ago – Human beings are one – if one member is afflicted with pain – all feel it – he who does not feel the pain of others cannot be called a human being."

Neelam Rose – A 20-year-old Muslim social entrepreneur and member of the Birmingham (UK) Youth Parliament: "From 13 years of age I wanted to change the world – my mother told me: ‘ change our community as a start’. I saw lots of funding for youth centres but nobody attending. I started to work to get young mums more involved in the community and next with youth who felt they did not have a voice. They were interested in media and journalism – we did projects and then got support, working with 100s of young people. We now produce educational programs and publications for use in schools. To succeed you need the community on your side –you need to listen first to what young people and parents want."

Andre Hackett – a South London-based social entrepreneur in his 20s who founded a company called Make A Change: "My journey started trying to solve the gun and knife crime that was killing or putting into prison my friends. We sold hundreds of T shirts and had 750 knives and guns melted down into key holders with the slogan ‘Education is the Key’ and auctioned them to fund youth projects." Andre felt great encouragement last year to be a recipient of a UPF Youth Award given in the UK Parliament.

Mr. Sri Ranga, Member of the Parliament in Sri Lanka - He claimed that youth were reluctant to enter the parliament and wasn’t very interested in politics. He used to work in journalism when it was life-threatening to do so, and he tried to unite both populations in Sri Lanka, for instance by conducting interviews in Sinhalese and subtitling them in Tamil during the war time, since dialogue is essential to success in resolving conflict. He claimed that while none of the religions advocate war and violence, political leaders insist on differences, which is what divides populations and countries. Hon. Sri Ranga stressed mutual respect and called for leaders to be educated and to share experiences among each other.

Matthias Reisinger, Founder of Emersense and HUB Vienna - Mr. Reisinger offered an interesting perspective on social entrepreneurship and peace. He argued that there is an increasing need for citizens to take the lead, as many challenges are not responded to by the governments without citizen pressure. He stressed the need for more transformative action, for instance by exposing injustice, by 'social aikido' (aikido is a martial art in which the strength of the opponent is used to one's own advantage; the metaphor of social aikido refers to a strategy of ‘me and you united against a common problem’), and finally a constructive program. Mr. Reisinger argued that what really leads to change is alternatives created by groups and individuals, also known as social entrepreneurs. They usually work on a community level; the challenge is how we can enable them to scale their impact and replicate it to other levels.

The contribution of young volunteers in the preparation of the conference resulted in innovative elements being developed as part of the ELC program:

  • World Café discussion groups – which enabled all participants young and old to interact centering on productive exploration and discussion on the key topics of the conference
  • Ambassador for Peace Fair – an opportunity for Young Ambassadors for Peace and the organizations they represent to be displayed in the conference room for all participants to view.

The UPF-Austria Youth Committee played a crucial role, and the conference attracted an audience which was predominantly young. There was a very successful collaboration between UPF staff and young volunteers, who revealed their flair and enthusiasm for the cause in major staff roles and in the outstanding cultural evening which showcased the talents of the Vienna Peace Choir and several other young performers who delighted hearts and minds.

Mrs. Hai Ok Lee, wife of the chair of UPF-Europe Dr. Yong Cheon Song, emphasized that promoting good character is a foundation for good leadership and that people often underestimated the importance of the family as an instrument for grassroots peacebuilding. Referring to the large number of young people at the conference, she mentioned: "When I entered the UN International Centre I was welcomed by so many young people. It touched my heart and I feel I am getting younger by being here!"

Calling himself part of the "elderly young," Dr. Willem van Eekelen, former Defense Minister of the Netherlands, said: "What do I expect from young people today? Above all a sense of values and responsibility and a good dose of idealism and hope. Do you have a clear idea of what you want to do in life? Idealism is not pursuing a starry-eyed impossible objective but keeping a goal in mind whatever you do. If you have a problem, it is very difficult to solve it by attacking it head on. If you are able to change the context, you have a chance. But to change the context you have to know in detail what makes the other side tick: what are his or her motives, and interests and where might it be possible to find common ground. In Europe we have changed the context through a process of solidarity and enlightened self-interest. This may be a strange mix of idealism and pragmatism, but it works, if we are able to maintain our values and norms, apply them responsibly, and keep our idealism throughout the course."

Mrs. Zena Eggough, UPF-Austria’s Vice President and UN Liaison, played an important role in securing the use of the most prestigious available room at the UN in Vienna for this event. Her beloved husband, Martyn Nkanu Eggough, died just one month earlier. He was one of the most eminent Nigerians involved in international governance, being a Director of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization based in Vienna. Zena was deeply impressed by the outstanding young people who participated and plans to attend UPF International Leadership Conference in Abuja, Nigeria, later in July.

NGO activities at the UN in Vienna generally involve much smaller meetings of the older generations. In striking contrast, this event attracted over 200 participants, 70 percent of whom were under 30 years of age.

Note: We publicized the conference on the Internet and invited more than 1000 contacts worldwide through facebook. Two Australian students belonging to the Oak Tree Foundation who were studying in Geneva found out about the conference through the Internet and registered. Two students came from Russia and a young MP from Sri Lanka. We had applications from Nepal and several African nations who were unable to attend because of visa problems. We had expected 120 people for the session at the UN, and more than 200 people came. A representative of the United Nations Information System phoned two weeks before the conference offering to publicize the event. Other organizations became involved, seeing it as an opportunity to publicize their work. They included the Vienna city EU program "Youth in Action," the Academic Council of the United Nations System, the Austrian National Youth Council, Austrian Service Abroad, AIESEC in Austria, Projekt Concordia, and the Idea Society.

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