It was the strongest call to youth to stand by one's country. "Regard your country, as sacred. It cannot be second to any of your interests; nor can it be sacrificed for any gain whatsoever. There may be outside pressures to compromise your love for your country, but all such pressures must be resisted at any cost," was the compelling message by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the youth of the world, addressing the World Youth Conference (WYC) 2014 earlier this week.
In a global region that has the largest population of youth in a demographic trend that is rising, Sri Lanka has made a significant impact in relating to this reality and the pressures it brings on nations and societies by hosting the WYC 2014, being the first Asian country to hold this event of increasing importance.
Current population projections show there will be around three billion young people in the world by 2015. This makes it imperative that a global strategy is developed to mainstream the focus on youth, and ensure their participation in existing and future development programs, at the national, regional and global levels. What this WYC 2014 in Sri Lanka has sought to do is provide an inspirational platform for deliberations to achieve such mainstream focus on youth and their needs.
Sri Lanka's proposal to host this World Conference, at the UN High-Level Meeting on Youth at the UN General Assembly in July 2011, was because it saw the increasing challenges faced by youth, recognizing that in this country alone youth comprise about 26 per cent of a population of 20 million. At the end of the scourge of terrorism that scarred our country for three decades, the hopes among our youth in a secure, better and more progressive Sri Lanka had been renewed. Also, globally, there is the largest generation of youth ever, making it impossible for those in the global South to discuss any follow-up to Rio+20 and the Post-2015 Development Agenda without considering their needs and challenges.
As President Mahinda Rajapaksa stated in his opening address at the WYC 2014 at Hambantota, "The Youth of today face an enhanced burden. They need to find a living for themselves, as well as, increasingly care for an ageing population. To ignore this growing trend would entail unmanageable problems for policy makers, national leaders, and the global community alike."
Having led the county for nearly ten years, and with his considerable experience in politics from the days of his own youth to this day, President Rajapaksa saw the increasing importance of addressing the issues and needs of youth, in the need for stronger nation building in Sri Lanka, and taking a wider view of the Asian region, the growing demand to recognize the rising needs and demands of youth for a better global future, in the face of major threats such as climate change, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the re-emergence of colonial and imperialist attitudes with the major economic problems the world has faced since the crisis in capitalism that emerged in 2008.
It is this experience in politics and governance that led the President to tell the youth delegates from the world over, gathered at Hambantota, that the primary responsibility to ensure youth participation in development, lies with the State."We as leaders and policy makers need to consider a number of challenges to make this effort meaningful and successful."
He explained that: "From a traditional policy maker's perspective, all too often, the question asked, when you raise the issue of youth involvement in any societal process is, do they have the expertise, capacity, knowledge, experience, leadership and the resources. Youth are seen as dependents or beneficiaries and not as active partners, who can also contribute to good outcomes. Leaving aside these dominant perceptions, we have to recognize that today's youth have evolved and need opportunities to participate and contribute to social progress. We need to re-adjust our traditional and conventional policy making structures, and institutions to accommodate youth participation. Our thinking has to change. We need to make that leap in policy and thinking when it comes to youth."
He saw the added values of effective youth participation, such as engaging youth and consulting with them, for better policy formulation and implementation, including evaluation, which helps fill policy gaps. "It is only by engaging them that we will understand their problems, expectations and aspirations. They need to be nurtured and their needs taken seriously, to ensure the complete empowerment of youth, who are the future of every nation."
Taking Sri Lanka's own example of the emergence for peace and the challenges faced in the process, President Rajapaksa said: "As we know, the minds of youth are extremely sensitive to influence and can be easily misguided. This is the attraction for terrorist groups, to recruit youth combatants to their cadres often ending as cannon fodder, a traumatized and scarred generation, if they survived. Sri Lanka faced this phenomenon when challenged by a terrorist group, described by the FBI, as the most ruthless in the world. In Sri Lanka, former youth combatants were treated as victims of terrorism and not perpetrators, and were all rehabilitated and reintegrated to society, for a better future. We strongly believe that it is the society at large that can rehabilitate and reintegrate these misguided youth, rather than any State apparatus."
Peace and reconciliation
To an audience that symbolized the spirit of youth the world over, and their aspirations and expectations, this was underscoring Sri Lanka's own attempts at peace building and reconciliation, and recognizing the role of society in this task that requires both patience and understanding, and not the haste and impatience of those who claim to be the "international community" who now face dilemmas and contradictions of their own in places such as Ukraine and Egypt.
President Rajapaksa added that: "The primary responsibility to ensure youth participation in development lies with the State. We as leaders and policy makers need to consider a number of challenges to make this effort meaningful and successful.
"From a traditional policy maker's perspective, all too often, the question asked, when you raise the issue of youth involvement in any societal process is, do they have the expertise, capacity, knowledge, experience, leadership and the resources. Youth are seen as dependents or beneficiaries and not as active partners, who can also contribute to good outcomes.
"Leaving aside these dominant perceptions, we have to recognize that today's youth have evolved and need opportunities to participate and contribute to social progress. We need to re-adjust our traditional and conventional policy making structures, and institutions to accommodate youth participation. Our thinking has to change. We need to make that leap in policy and thinking when it comes to youth."
Referring to the Sri Lankan context, the President explained that: "Sri Lanka accords special attention to the needs and aspirations of our significant youth population. Having experienced two violent youth insurgencies in 1971 and 1989 we are mindful of the causes that create violent discontent. More importantly, Sri Lanka has recognized that economic and social development was most successful when young people became active stakeholders, in policy formulation and implementation.
"We continue to integrate youth into our national policy making and implementation mechanisms, through our network of more than 10,000 village level youth led organizations and the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament. Youth Parliamentarians, also consult and engage with policy makers and national Parliamentarians, including civil society, to contribute policy inputs. This has also provided an important opportunity in post-conflict Sri Lanka, to foster ideals of peace, tolerance, and harmony among the country's younger generation."
Commenting on the new trends in youth participation in society, President Rajapaksa said: "Youth need to be given a sense of purpose to harness their drive and vigour towards meaningful activity. Their innovation and creativity is vital to exploring new knowledge and preparing the world for the future. Entrepreneurial youth has actively contributed in the fields of green energy, ICT and media. Youth are well endowed to reap the fruits and also bear the burdens of the successes, and mistakes of the present. This has led to recognize, both at the national and international levels, that young people are not simply the recipients of services but are active stakeholders in shaping the future of their communities. We, as leaders must, therefore, be committed to providing avenues for the young people to play their rightful roles in crafting the future."
Reminiscing on his own experiences as a youth activist, the President said: "I remember how myself as a youth activist fought for the causes I believed in. How myself, together with my colleagues, advocated and lobbied for youth priorities back then. Today, sitting on the other side of maturity, I see that energy in you. I saw it in your dance performance on stage. I saw that enthusiasm in your eyes, and can still share your mood and feelings.
He also recognized the value of innovation and creativity, that is the strength of youth, in stating: "I wish to encourage all youth to create an inclusive platform, to act as a catalyst to strengthen partnerships between governments, youth, civil society and academia that address and advance the cause of young people...Be creative and always try to find innovative approaches, to break barriers. Use your energy and potential to keep seeking out a better world. Innovation and creativity are your own tools, for a better world."
The concluding remarks of President Rajapaksa were a strong and driving appeal to nation building by youth, calling on all delegates to "regard your country as sacred". It was an appeal that echoed a compelling belief in youth and their need to be committed to country and nation. As he stated it: "I wish to appeal to all of you, the young people who represent the world, to regard your country, as sacred. It cannot be second to any of your interests; nor can it be sacrificed for any gain whatsoever. There may be outside pressures to compromise your love for your country, but all such pressures must be resisted at any cost. Only then, can we build a better world for all of us without destroying the cultures, traditions, customs, that we are heirs to."