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Boosting child and youth participation – from voice to choice

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Amid the ongoing pandemic and its disastrous effects on multiple aspects of human rights protection across the globe, there is consensus in one area: children and young people have been particularly hard hit. While – thus far at least – they have largely been spared from the direct health effects of COVID‑19, the crisis has had a disproportionate, profound impact on their wellbeing. Virus containment measures have deprived them more than other groups of their usual routines, cutting them off from their social structures and support networks. School closures, lasting many months in some Council of Europe member states, have exposed millions of children not only to reduced learning opportunities but also to isolation, depression and a marked increase in violence and abuse.

In March 2020, UNICEF warned that “all children of all ages and in all countries are being affected in particular by the socioeconomic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. This is a universal crisis. And for some children, the impact will be lifelong.” Today, this ominous prediction is considered optimistic by some experts, as two-thirds of children globally are still suffering considerable disruption to their schooling and there are alarming reports of significant growth in mental health needs among children. In addition, economies have contracted while billions are being pumped into recovery programmes, generating budget deficits and debt burdens for years to come – and for our children to address.

While it is sometimes inevitable, especially in a pandemic context and given the pressing need to protect lives, that governments take far-reaching decisions at short notice and without consulting those most impacted, we must honestly acknowledge that such participation gaps are highly problematic.

Policy decisions are made by leaders who are elected by, and accountable to, a population in Europe that is ageing in overall terms. Yet the consequences of many of these decisions will be borne by our children, whether in terms of the learning opportunities they will have, their entry into the labour market or the impacts of future austerity measures on their health and social care services. The disproportionate impact of today’s policies on children and young people has long been acknowledged with respect to climate change and environmental damage in particular. And yet it took the courts to convince European policymakers to take the concerns of young people properly into account and avoid overburdening future generations.

It is therefore high time that we evaluate, self-critically, how successful our efforts have been so far to ensure that children and adolescents have a real chance of being heard and of actually influencing the decision-making processes that impact them. Respecting the right of the child to participate leads not only to better and more effective decisions, it also enriches democracy and helps young people develop citizenship competencies for life.

The right to be heard

According to Article 12 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by all but one UN member state, “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” The Committee on the Rights of the Child has identified child participation as one of the four fundamental and general principles of the Convention, the others being the right to non-discrimination, the right to survival and development and the primary consideration of the child’s best interests. Article 12 thus not only establishes a key right in and of itself but should also be considered in the interpretation of all other rights. The views of children must be taken seriously, and they must be given proper consideration when decisions are made. Article 12 further stresses that participation procedures and mechanisms should widen and become more meaningful as children grow older.

The right to be heard extends to all actions and decisions that affect children’s lives – in the family, in school, in local communities and at national political level. It includes issues relating to transport, housing, macro-economics, the environment, as well as education, childcare or public health. Participation applies both to issues that affect individual children, such as decisions about where they live following their parents’ divorce, and to children collectively and as a group, such as legislation determining the minimum age for full time work.

In its General Comment No. 12 on the right of the child to be heard, the Committee on the Rights of the Child stressed that the implementation of this fundamental right remains elusive in most societies around the world. Measures taken are often not very effective. Longstanding practices or attitudes and political and economic barriers prevent children from expressing their views on matters that affect them and from having these views duly considered. The Committee suggested that real child participation requires the dismantling of all legal, political, economic, social and cultural barriers and, beyond a commitment to invest resources and training, readiness to challenge existing assumptions about children’s capacities.

Today, at a time of unprecedented crisis with decisions profoundly affecting all aspects of children’s lives and set to continue doing so for many years to come, a wide range of welcome efforts are being made to promote child participation across Europe. And yet there is also a growing body of research reflecting on whether the current opportunities for children to influence public decision-making are effective and reasonable from a child’s perspective or whether they are often not merely symbolic. Few governments have made systematic efforts to institutionalise mechanisms at different levels for children to participate actively and meaningfully in all decisions that affect them. In many countries children still face challenges in accessing information about their rights and national policies that affect them.

Defining participation

Participation is widely considered as ‘taking part’ in an activity, process or community, involving responsibility, action and a recognised role in influencing decision-making processes. It is a continuous, systematic process, not a formal structure or single event. Participation requires training and engagement at all levels and, therefore, the provision of adequate resources. Crucially, promoting meaningful and genuine participation calls for an attitude that does not underestimate children’s and adolescents’ views but supports and encourages their right to participate in democratic processes.

Children and adults do not see the world alike. There are countless examples of policies, for instance to reduce child poverty or design child-friendly spaces that were developed by adults with the very purpose of benefiting children but that in fact had negative consequences for children. As we know from other domains, meaningful participation plainly leads to better decisions. Children are not only “adults-in-the-making”, they have unique perspectives that are essential to identifying, addressing and solving issues.

Unless we listen carefully to children and adolescents and involve them in all related processes, we will not therefore be able to create better learning opportunities, abolish discriminatory attitudes in schools or more effectively address violence against children at all levels.

Challenges to participating

It is often argued that children lack the experience and maturity to participate and that they do not understand what is in their best interest. This overlooks the fact that even small children articulate clear preferences, develop nuanced capacities for negotiating their friendships and family relations and have a deep sense of justice and social responsibility. It is also sometimes said that children are easily manipulated and influenced. Yet individuals vary considerably, and many adults are easily influenced, too. In addition, the argument contradicts the concept of evolving capacities inherent in the CRC, which requires recognition of the fact that children in different environments and cultures, and faced with diverse life experiences, acquire competencies at different ages. There is a growing body of evidence, for instance, of the significant contribution that children make in emergency situations, and I welcome the WHO’s recent co-operation project with six large youth organisations on addressing the impact of COVID‑19.

Another challenge to participation involves it being reduced to something rather formal and therefore not genuine or effective. The danger has been highlighted that child participation frequently resembles tokenism and decoration, sometimes even resulting in manipulation, as children may not be clear about their role and actual impact on relevant processes. If children are involved solely for the sake of “window-dressing” but all real decisions are left to adults, if children’s views and wishes are sometimes even used as arguments but without their true needs and interests being taken into account, there is a danger of children becoming frustrated and coming to think that participation leads nowhere. This may lead to cynicism and disengagement.

Effective measures to empower children and adolescents

The Council of Europe has devoted significant efforts to boosting effective child participation. Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)2 on the participation of children and young people under the age of 18 sets out general principles and calls on member states to protect children’s right to participate through legal, financial and practical measures, to raise awareness and training opportunities regarding participation and to create spaces for participation in all spheres.

Efforts to promote child and youth participation can be categorised into three different types of processes: consultative, collaborative and those promoting self-advocacy. When identifying the most appropriate method, it must be borne in mind that the first two types are usually adult-initiated and that special efforts must be made to ensure that children are offered a real chance of influencing both the agenda-setting process and also the choice of methodology used.

As general principles of effective child participation, it is important that children be involved from the earliest possible stage onwards and that the rules of the process, including about the decisions that can be made and by whom, are transparent to them. Children are not a homogenous group. As with society as a whole, the views and perceptions of the more disadvantaged and marginalised, including children with disabilities and from minority backgrounds, may need to be sought out proactively so that they are taken properly into account. All participation should be voluntary. The mechanism should be age-appropriate and chosen in accordance with the evolving capabilities of children, treating them all with equal respect regardless of their age, ability, situation or other factors.

Child participation should build the self-esteem of children and empower them to identify and tackle abuse or neglect of their rights. When successful, it should help children develop active citizenship competencies. It is crucial therefore to provide feedback to children on how their input was used and how it influenced any decisions that were taken. Lastly, children’s involvement is vital when it comes to evaluating the participation processes and assessing the quality of participation.

Promising practices

Various encouraging initiatives do thankfully exist to ensure that children are offered a meaningful opportunity to participate.

In Serbia in 2020, over 1 500 children took part in an anonymous online consultation about how the COVID crisis had affected them. Their concerns were fed into advocacy work and policy papers at national and European levels. Save the Children set up mobile teams to work with refugee and migrant children between countries and in transit centres in the Western Balkans so as to provide them with information and seek their views regarding child protection case management. Consultations with children also inform programme design, monitoring and evaluation, reflecting the crucial nature of child-friendly information and proper participation in situations where children are most vulnerable.

Examples of successful collaborative processes include, for instance, the active involvement of children in the General Discussions organised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Children make submissions on the discussion themes, participate in the design and planning of the day, act as session co-chairs and actively take part in all discussions. Eurochild’s Strategic Plan 2019-20 was drawn up jointly with children in a collaborative process during which children influenced activities, campaigns and strategic planning events, and continue to be involved in policy development through monitoring and evaluation. In Italy, Milan City Council involved the city’s children in planning, transforming and co-managing the renewal of nine school gardens.

The Scottish Youth Parliament is a prominent example of a child-led structure which has inspired other such initiatives. Officially launched in 1999, it was established as a follow-up to the review of how Scottish democracy could work and the realisation that young people and children should play an active role in it. Policies are developed by elected representatives and directly fed into the Scottish Parliament. There are also annual cabinet meetings where representatives of the Youth Parliament have an opportunity to speak to senior politicians about the issues that affect them most.

These are important tools to ensure that the voices of children count and have a direct impact. As such, they are also key in building the trust of young people in political processes and institutions. According to an OECD study, young people’s trust in public institutions and their perception of having political influence and representation in decision-making have stalled. At the same time, children and adolescents demonstrate strong motivation for addressing global challenges such as climate change, rising inequality, shrinking space for civil society and threats to democratic institutions. Fridays for Future is a case in point.

Promoting democratic participation

In some Council of Europe member states, the voting age has been lowered in an effort to address barriers to youth participation in political life, ensure more age diversity in public consultations and obtain more inclusive policy outcomes. Austria lowered the general voting age to 16 as long ago as 2007, Greece lowered it to 17 in 2016 and in Malta, 16-year-olds have been able to vote since 2018. In several other countries (such as Estonia, 12 Länder in Germany, as well as Scotland and Wales) the voting age has been lowered to 16 for local and regional elections. Experiences overall are highly positive, suggesting that 16‑year-olds prepare themselves well and vote very similarly to 18-24‑year-olds. There has been no evidence of a tendency among young people to vote for more radical or ‘bogus’ political parties. Lowering the voting age is also believed to be an effective tool to generate interest and greater awareness of politics at an earlier age, leading to more political involvement and higher voter turnout later in life. In fact, turnout among 16-17-year-old voters has been shown to be slightly higher than that of 18-24-year-olds. This is linked to the generally more stable life situation at that age, careful preparation at school and the fact that engagement with politics is still viewed as meaningful and positive rather than a senseless and frustrating experience.

States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in establishing age restrictions for the right to vote – as long as the criteria are reasonable and proportionate. According to the Venice Commission, the right to vote must be conferred at the age of majority at the latest. The highest age limit that Council of Europe member states may set is therefore 18, but they can go lower based on their own assessment. Article 12 of the CRC obliges states parties to give weight to the views of the child “in accordance with their age and maturity”. It therefore makes sense to give effect to the increased political awareness of today’s young people, which is due, among other things, to greater access to information.

The voting age has been lowered continuously over past decades to expand the recognition of citizen authority as a basic principle of representative democracy. With few exceptions, population ageing has decreased the share of young voters across Council of Europe member states and concerns about fairness and solidarity between generations are being raised increasingly frequently in public policy debates. Lowering the voting age facilitates intergenerational discourse in parliaments and helps place youth issues on the political agenda – even though older voters will still greatly outnumber younger ones for many years to come. While lowering the voting age is not the only effective means of boosting youth participation, it is certainly a powerful message to our children that we stand ready to listen to them, take their views seriously and give them a choice.

From having a voice to having a choice

Young people have proven that they are interested and well informed, with growing political responsiveness and a clear sense of wanting to participate in decision-making processes. It is time to move away from symbolic approaches to child participation. Today’s children will bear the consequences of today’s decisions, whether regarding the environment, health policies, economic recovery or pension funds. Let’s seize the current opportunity of reflection and ‘building back better’ to show courage, foresight and strong commitment to Article 12 of the CRC. Let’s give children a voice through open and inclusive consultations and collaborate closely with them when setting agendas and priorities and when designing, implementing and evaluating policies that affect them. Let’s proactively encourage and support child-led initiatives that aim to improve existing patterns, empowering young people to make choices and meaningfully influence their future. And lastly, let’s promote their effective democratic participation, including by giving serious consideration to lowering the voting age.

Council of Europe

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Europe

Hungary’s Victor Orban uses soccer to project Greater Hungary and racial exclusivism

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Image source: veja.abril.com.br

Hungary didn’t qualify for the Qatar World Cup, but that hasn’t stopped Prime Minister Victor Orban from exploiting the world’s current focus on soccer to signal his Putinesque definition of central European borders as defined by civilization and ethnicity rather than internationally recognized frontiers.

Mr. Orban drew the ire of Ukraine and Romania for wearing to a local Hungarian soccer match a scarf depicting historical Hungary, which also includes chunks of Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia.

It was the second time in a matter of months that Mr. Orban spelt out his irredentist concept of geography that makes him a member of a club of expansionist leaders that includes Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu, and members of the Indian power elite, who define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms.

Speaking in July to university summer camp students in Romania, which is home to 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians, Mr. Orban insisted that “Hungary has…national…and even European ambitions. This is why…the motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together.”

Responding to Ukrainian and Romanian objections to his scarf, Mr. Orban insisted that “soccer is not politics. Do not read things into it that are not there. The Hungarian national team belongs to all Hungarians, wherever they live!”

Hungary has accused Ukraine of restricting the right of an estimated 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use Hungarian in education because of a 2017 law that curbs the usage of minority languages in schools.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger presented Mr. Orban with a new scarf at a recent summit of Central European leaders in a twist of satire. “I noticed that Viktor Orban has an old scarf, so I gave him a new one today,” Mr. Heger said on Facebook.

Mr. Orban’s territorial ambitions may pose a lesser threat than his supremacist and racist attitudes.

Those attitudes constitute building blocks of a cvilisationalist world that he shares with Christian nationalists and Republicans in the United States, as well as a new Israeli coalition government that Mr. Netanyahu is forming. Mr. Putin has used similar arguments to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

In contrast to Mr. Putin and potentially Mr. Netanyahu, depending on how the Biden administration responds to his likely coalition, Mr. Orban is on a far tighter leash regarding territorial ambition as a member of NATO and the European Union.

As a result, far more insidious is what amounts to a mainstreaming of racism and supremacism by men like Mr. Orban, Mr. Netanyahu, and former US President Donald Trump, who consistently mainstream norms of decency and propriety by violating them with impunity.

Speaking a language shared by American Christian nationalists and Mr. Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners, Mr. Orban rejected in his July speech a “mixed-race world” defined as a world “in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe.”

The prime minister asserted that mixed-race countries “are no longer nations: They are nothing more than conglomerations of peoples” and are no longer part of what Mr. Orban sees as “the Western world.” The prime minister stopped short of identifying those countries, but the United States and Western European nations would fit the bill.

In a similar vein, Mr. Trump recently refused to apologise for having dinner with Ye, a rapper previously known as Kanye West, who threatened he would go “death on con 3 on Jewish people,” and Nick Fuentes, a 24-year old pro-Russian trafficker in Holocaust denial and white supremacism.

Mr. Trump hosted the two men at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, just after launching his 2024 presidential election campaign. Mr. Ye “was really nice to me,” Mr. Trump said.

Candidates backed by Mr. Trump in last month’s US midterm elections, including Hershel Walker, who is competing in next week’s runoff in Georgia, have similarly felt comfortable associating themselves with Messrs. Ye and Fuentes.

Mr. Fuentes asserted days before the dinner that “Jews have too much power in our society. Christians should have all the power, everyone else very little,” while Mr. Ye’s manager, Milo Yannopoulos, announced that “we’re done putting Jewish interests first.”

Mr. Yonnopoulos added that “it’s time we put Jesus Christ first again in this country. Nothing and no one is going to get in our way to make that happen.”

Featured on notorious far-right radio talk show host Alex Jones’ Infowars, Mr. Ye professed his admiration of Adolf Hitler. “I like Hitler,” Mr. Ye said, listing the various reasons he admired the notorious Nazi leader.

Mr. Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners seek to legislate discriminatory distinctions between adherents of different Jewish religious trends, hollow out Israeli democracy, introduce an apartheid-like system, disband the Palestinian Authority, expel Palestinians “disloyal to Israel” in what would amount to ethnic cleansing, deprive women of their rights, and re-introduce homophobia.

Avraham Burg, an Israeli author, politician, businessman, and scion of a powerful leader of a defunct once mainstream religious political party, warned in 2018 that Messrs. Orban, Trump, and Netanyahu “are the leaders of paranoia and phobia.”

Mr. Burg cautioned that they represent “a global phenomenon that crosses all boundaries, ethnic, racial, or religious, gathering into a tribal ghetto that is smaller than the modern state, which is diverse and inclusive of all its citizens. Their fierce antagonism to the foundations of democracy and the attempt to do detriment to as many accomplishments and benefits of the open society as possible are evidence of inherent weaknesses and real existential fears.”

Mr. Burg’s dire vision is even more a reality today than when he spoke out four years ago.

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Strong will to enhance bilateral relations between Serbia and Pakistan

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Although the Republic of Serbia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan are two sovereigns, independent states, with different cultures, religions, languages, histories, and ethnicities. One is located in Europe and the other in Asia. Yet, there exist so many similarities and commonalities, which provide a strong basis and convergence of interests.

Both, Serbia and Pakistan, are developing countries and struggling to improve their national economies and the standard of life of respective nations. Both nations were victims of the Western world and sanctions. Ugly media has been projecting a distorted image of both countries. Hindrances created by Superpowers in the path of development are a common phenomenon in both cases.

People in both countries are hardworking, strong, resilient, and capable of surviving in harsh circumstances. Both have demonstrated in the past that they can resist pressures from any superpower. Both have learned the lessons from past bitter experiences and are determined not to repeat the same in the future.

In my recent visit to the Republic of Serbia, I noticed that there exists a fair awareness in Serbian regarding Pakistan. I came into a cross with the general public and common people and they know a lot about Pakistan. They have shown strong feelings for Pakistan. There exists immense goodwill for Pakistan among Serbian youth.

Both countries are in the process of industrialization and promoting trade. Currently, both countries are earning from the export of workforce and human resources. Serbian youth are working in Western Europe and sending back foreign exchange. And Pakistan workforce finds a convenient destination in the Middle East for earning more and sending back foreign exchange to Pakistan. But, both nations have the potential to earn through export and foreign trade.

Serbia is known as the gateway to Europe and Pakistan is the gateway to Oil-rich Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, and Eurasia. Both countries can utilize each other for re-export too.

Both countries are far away from each other but, a strong bond of friendship and mutual understanding is admirable. Based on the convergence of interests, we can cooperate with each other. Especially can help each other in their areas of weaknesses and benefit from each other’s strengths.

Serbia has vast cultivatable land and is rich in water resources, very niche in the agriculture sector. Whereas its population is limited to only 7 million approximately. While Pakistan is 250 million population and a strong workforce in the agriculture sector. Both nations can positively collaborate and cooperate in the Agriculture sector.

The Republic of Serbia is in the process of Industrialization, especially in the automotive sector, whereas, Pakistan has a strong base for industrialization and is rich in the technical and skilled workforce. Pakistan has established a rich supply chain for industrialization and Serbia can benefit from Pakistan’s strength.

Science, Technology, Research, Innovation, and Higher Education is the important area where both can benefit from collaboration and cooperation. Pakistan has world-ranked Universities, recognized globally with English as a medium of study, and can meet the demand of Serbian youth. Whereas Serbia has the edge in the IT sector, Pakistani youth can be beneficiaries of Serbian facilities.

However, to achieve the real benefits from each other’s strengths, there is a need to do a lot of homework. There is a dire need to promote people-to-people contact and mutual visit at all levels. Scholars, intellectuals, academia, and media can play a vital role in bringing both nations closer.

Governments in both countries may take appropriate policy measures to strengthen the relations like relaxing visa regimes, removing tax barriers, and introducing attractive policies to each other’s nationals in various fields of life.

To promote trade, Free Trade Agreement (FTA) can be signed among them and formulate a trade policy benefitting each other. Similarly, investment mechanisms need to be devised to attract investment from each other country.

Media has a long-lasting impact and collaboration between two nations in Media will greatly help to build a positive narrative of both countries and simultaneously need to counter negativism in the ugly media in some countries over-engaged in distorting our image.

There is a strong will to enhance our bilateral relationship between the two nations, and whenever there is a will, there is a way. I am optimistic that bilateral relations will grow exponentially in the days to come.

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The Economist: “Europe looks like… a sucker”

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© European Union 2019 – EP

Don’t be fooled by the rush of good news from Europe in the past few weeks. A brutal economic squeeze will pose a test of Europe’s resilience in 2023 and beyond, – predicts “The Economist”.

There is a growing fear that the recasting of the global energy system, American economic populism and geopolitical rifts threaten the long-run competitiveness of the European Union and non-members, including Britain.

Energy prices are down from the summer and a run of good weather means that gas storage is nearly full. But the energy crisis still poses dangers.

Gas prices are six times higher than their long-run average. On November 22nd Russia threatened to throttle the last operational pipeline to Europe. Europe’s gas storage will need to be refilled once again in 2023, this time without any piped Russian gas whatsoever.

The war is also creating financial vulnerabilities. Energy inflation is spilling over into the rest of Europe’s economy, creating an acute dilemma for the European Central Bank. It needs to raise interest rates to control prices. But if it goes too far it could destabilize the Eurozone’s weaker members, not least indebted Italy.

Too many of Europe’s industrial firms, especially German ones, have relied on abundant energy inputs from Russia. The prospect of severed relations with Russia, structurally higher costs and a decoupling of the West and China has meant a reckoning in many boardrooms.

That fear has been amplified by America’s economic nationalism which threatens to draw activity across the Atlantic in a whirlwind of subsidies and protectionism. President Joe Biden’s ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ involves $400 bn of handouts for energy, manufacturing and transport and includes make-in-America provisions.

In many ways the scheme resembles the industrial policies that China has pursued for decades. As the other two pillars of the world economy become more interventionist and protectionist, Europe, with its quaint insistence on upholding World Trade Organization rules on free trade, looks like a sucker.

Many bosses warn that the combination of expensive energy and American subsidies leaves Europe at risk of mass deindustrialization.

Compared with its pre-COVID GDP trajectory, Europe has done worse than any other economic bloc. Of the world’s 100 most valuable firms, only 14 are European.

America’s financial and military support for Ukraine vastly exceeds Europe’s, and America resents the EU’s failure to pay for its own security.

America is irritated by Europe’s economic torpor and its failure to defend itself; Europe is outraged by America’s economic populism.

…High-level relationship – where will it all lead to?

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