Youth, Peace, And Security: A New Agenda for the Middle East and North Africa

The important role of young people in building peace and challenging violent extremism is gaining recognition within the international community. The United Nations Security Resolution on Youth, Peace, and Security (SCR 2250), passed in December 2015, is evidence of this trend. It represents a shift from the dichotomy of youth as either perpetrators or victims of violence to a perspective in which youth are viewed as agents of positive change and peace. In moving forward with this resolution and similarly reflective and supportive policy, one of the greatest challenges for the Middle East and North Africa will be  the current geopolitical context and obstacles to opportunity. In a region fraught with conflict, stemming from domestic and foreign policies, as well as a history of unrepresentative and repressive governance systems, leaders have often sought to maintain the status quo. This is a problem in a region where more than 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 29 years of age, and are increasingly frustrated with and stymied by a lack of meaningful political space—leading to lost faith in political systems.1 In such a setting, regional policymakers must be challenged to meaningfully incorporate young people into decisionmaking processes, to ensure that peacebuilding programs target young people early on in their development, to avoid the securitization of youth in the development and implementation of national and local policies, and to address the underlying social, economic, and political  grievances that often drive extremism and impact young people’s relationships with their communities and states.

Margaret Williams
June 06, 2016


Last December, the United Nations Security Council passed the first-ever Security Council Resolution on Youth, Peace, and Security (SCR 2250).2 This historic resolution urges UN member states to elevate the voices of young people in decisionmaking at all levels and stresses the importance of inclusive environments for youth peacebuilding through economic, social, and development activities.3 It also recognizes the rise of violent extremism among youth, highlights the importance of addressing conditions that can lead to radicalization and violent extremism, and advocates for designing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs with the needs of young people in mind.

Set against a background of ever-younger recruits to the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, hereafter referred to as Daesh, and other groups in conflict zones and more stable countries further afield, it is not surprising that policymakers have elevated the “youth issue” to the top of the peace and security agenda. From a White House summit on countering violent extremism (CVE) in February 2015 to a Global Leaders Summit on the same topic later in September and a G20 meeting in November highlighting the nexus, the issue of youth, recruitment, and violent extremism has featured prominently in global debate.

In conjunction, there is growing acknowledgement that hard-security approaches pursued by governments and militaries on national and local levels to combat extremism and stem recruitment to extremist or terrorist groups may be ineffective or counter-productive.4 Take Nairobi, for instance, where, following the attacks on the Westgate Mall in 2013, the police’s indiscriminate profiling and heavy-handed approaches to security in Somali-dominant neighborhoods may have in fact fueled recruitment.

If the international community is to advance policies that bring security, social cohesion, and the prevention of violent extremism, focus and support should be placed on those building peace; and greater, critical attention given to the underlying drivers of extremism, rather than heavy-handed responses. In stressing the need to address the underlying conditions that can lead to radicalization, both the Secretary-General’s Action Plan for the Prevention of Violent Extremism and the Youth, Peace, and Security Resolution attempt to provide a wider lens through which to view contributing factors and responses to extremism.

Advancing legitimate and effective governance as a means for long-lasting security and sustainable development in the Middle East and North Africa will continue to face entrenched and established resistance. Yet, investments should be made to meaningfully implement the youth, peace, and security agenda and to support such a compelling demographic. There are 1.8 billion young women and men globally between the ages of 10 and 24, more than ever before in history.6 In the Middle East and North Africa, 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 29.7 Not to recognize their contributions to peace, capitalize on their innovation and energy, and invest in their growth would come at significant opportunity costs for economic and social progress, and security.


Of the estimated 27,000 to 31,000 “foreign fighters” swelling Daesh’s ranks, around 16,000 are believed to come from the Middle East and North Africa.8 The majority of these come from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.9

Yet, there is no single “extremist” profile; recent studies indicate that adherence to an ideology has less to do with the pull to join than with a search for belonging, purpose, adventure and camaraderie.10 In countries with the largest flows of fighters, recruitment to Daesh is highly localized.11 Simultaneously, for many, the digital age has made the global local, bringing into focus global inequity and perceptions of injustice and creating additional spaces for community, and radicalization, online. Regardless, many of the push and pull factors conducive to violent extremism are byproducts of ineffective and unresponsive governance, alienation, and structural barriers to economic, social, and political opportunity.12 As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has articulated, “We also know the critical elements for success [to prevent violent extremism]: Good governance; the rule of law; political participation; quality education and decent jobs; full respect for human rights.”

The lack of equality and opportunity in the region is well understood. As highlighted in a 2015 World Bank study, while many Arab states made macroeconomic progress in advance of the 2010-2011 revolutions, their citizenry felt increasingly frustrated by the deficiency of decent jobs and public services, political corruption, and lack of government accountability.13 Perry Cammack, of the Carnegie Endowment, has stated, “That the region’s downward spiral into violence and extremism is rooted in decades of catastrophic governance failures has long been known, but frequently ignored or considered impractical to address.... Governments double down on the approach they know: reverting to repression and a security strategy that may provide temporary relief but is likely to further alienate their publics over time.”14

Following the revolutions of 2010 and 2011, barriers to economic, social, and political opportunity continue to plague the region. Youth unemployment rates worsened between 2012 and 2014 in the MENA region, and were higher than those of any other region in the world, near 30 percent.15 Yet, more than the provision of employment, providing a space for opportunity, dignity, and decent jobs is central to stability and social cohesion.16 Focusing on increased numbers of youth involved in traditional civic activities, such as civil groups or political or electoral activities, may not result in changed values on views on political violence.17 According to the international NGO Mercy Corps, increased investments in two-track governance programs that connect youth “voices” with meaningful reforms on issues of corruption, predatory justice systems and exclusive governance structures will help to lessen young people’s engagement in political violence.18 As noted in a 2015 OECD study, youth policy in the MENA region is often siloed, lacking a “whole of government” approach, and young people often find themselves in “observer status” in policy cycles without much opportunity to shape political outcomes.19

To increase a government’s legitimacy, channels of communication and partnerships at local and national levels that connect institutions to local and youth voices may be useful.  In short, governments must recognize that joblessness or poverty does not equate to violence; and that employment or civic engagement schemes would be far more effective when coupled with meaningful governance reforms.20


While governments at the local, national, and international level continue to struggle to fill governance and services deficits, young people have taken progress into their own hands throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. In Tunisia, university graduates have launched startup companies building civic entrepreneurship throughout the country.21 One of these startups, Cogite, is a creative co-working space in Tunis that provides a platform for young entrepreneurs to collaborate. Cogite’s CEO, Houssem Aoudi, noted, “As entrepreneurs we share a communal sense as we believe it is our duty to construct Tunisia. For me, entrepreneurship is a kind of resistance against an unfriendly banking system and our old-fashioned government.”22

In Lebanon, a Twitter campaign, #youstink, was launched in 2015 to protest a months-long pileup of trash and lack of sanitary services believed to be caused by government paralysis and rampant corruption. This campaign-turned-social-movement crossed typical sectarian and political party lines to pursue a unified front in support of solutions to universal problems. Contrary to the majority of mass protests in Lebanon, all political parties and figures were implicated under the campaign’s “all means all” slogan. The movement may not have ushered in a new era of political rule, but it did demonstrate and forge a political voice transcending of traditional dividing lines.

Since the beginning of the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen, an estimated 6,000 people have been killed, including 3,000 civilians. Around 5,600 Yemenis have been injured, 19.3 million people lack access to clean water or sanitation, 320,000 children are severely malnourished, and access to an AK-47 weapon is easier than to education.23 This war, similar to others in the region, is largely viewed as part of a larger war for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with various world and regional powers also engaged.24 In the case of Yemen, Saudi Arabia has portrayed the Houthi ethnic group as a proxy of Iran—a much disputed and debated claim.25 Against this backdrop of destruction and diminishing hope, youth-led organizations, such as Resonate!Yemen, continue to work to try to build social cohesion, maintain trust among their networks across political parties, and hold their communities together.26 As the crisis has grown in Yemen, many youth groups focused on political engagement have turned to the humanitarian needs of their communities and service delivery.

In Libya, Alaa Murabit, a Canadian-Libyan, founded the Voice of Libyan Women (VLW) at the age of 21.27 Her goal was to challenge societal and cultural norms and push for women’s participation in peace processes and conflict mediation. Its programs focus on women’s rights, political participation, and economic empowerment, and have been viewed as so successful that the model has been replicated in multiple countries.28 True to its founding, VLW remains a youth-led organization. Similarly, Together We Build It was founded by Hajer Sharief, 23, and works to build a democratic Libya through political and economic empowerment of women and youth and the protection of marginalized groups, including the disabled, through publications, seminars, and organizations.29 Together We Build It took part in the Global Forum on Youth, Peace, and Security in Amman, Jordan in 2015.

In 2013, Zoomal, an Arab World crowdsourcing platform, was launched by its 22-year-old founder to promote innovation, creativity, and sustainable development in the region. Recent projects funded through this platform include a kindergarten in Palestine, a youth and sports initiative in Lebanon, a mentorship and employability program for young women in Morocco, and a Syrian refugee community center in Beirut suffering from lack of funding due to fatigue from traditional donors.

These examples demonstrate the variety of approaches and partnerships undertaken by young people to constructively voice their opposition to the status quo, create opportunity for themselves and their peers, and build a base for peace and access to decisionmaking even under the most threatening and direst of circumstances.


SCR 2250 reflects an official shift in the international community’s perception of young people in the context of conflict and peacebuilding, positing youth as positive agents of change, rather than either victims or perpetrators of violence. The resolution calls on youth to be engaged in shaping sustainable peace, and recognizes their role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security, conflict prevention and resolution, peacebuilding, and justice and reconciliation. Built on five pillars—participation, protection, prevention, partnerships, and disarmament and reintegration—it urges member states to consider increasing the representation of youth in local, national, regional and international decisionmaking, including peace processes and institutions and mechanisms to counter violent extremism. On the latter, the rise of radicalization to violent extremism among youth is also stressed, as is the need to address its underlying contributing factors and conditions. In short, the resolution calls for the creation of enabling and inclusive environments for youth engaged in peacebuilding, including through targeted social and economic development, and for related disengagement and reintegration programming to be youth and gender-specific. In pursuit of its objectives, partnership is encouraged among and between member states, the UN, youth groups, civil society, NGOs, and relevant regional and national actors.

The primary concerns surrounding SCR 2250 are both distinct and intertwined, and in many ways, larger than the resolution itself. The geopolitical dynamics of the region, including war, conflict, regime support, and a knee-jerk grasp for security at all costs, have raised concerns that this resolution will allow for policymakers to evade addressing the root causes of violent extremism and insecurity in the region. As Rami Khouri articulated following the Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism in September 2015, “such attempts to address extremism fail because they evade rather than address the central causes of the ongoing expansion of terrorism and political violence around the world, especially in the Arab world.”30 Primarily, the Security Council resolution does not directly address the policies of governments, within and beyond the MENA region, that have sustained conflict, oppressive and unrepresentative governance structures, corruption, and marginalization.

Similarly, there is concern that the youth, peace, and security agenda will be overtaken by other high-profile agendas within the UN system: in particular, a more security-focused countering violent extremism agenda led by some permanent members of the UN Security Council, as well as non-Security Council member states. In so doing, young people will become an instrument to increase security; their rights, equality, and opportunity will be viewed and measured through a lens of security, not peacebuilding, risking further alienation.

In addition, a more technical critique has been the age parameters set in the resolution, which identify youth as 18 to 29 as opposed to the typical UN definition of 15 to 24. This is notable because 48 percent of the world’s population is under 24 years of age, and 29 percent is between the ages of 15 and 24. Furthermore, targeting positive outcomes in adolescent brains—those between the ages of 15, the usual cutoff, and 18, the resolution’s cutoff—can produce more meaningful and long-lasting impact in terms of repeated behavior and thought processes.31 Engaging people at a younger age than presently outlined, through a gender-sensitive lens and across political, social, and economic spheres, may be more effective in building inclusive and sustained peace.


The passage of Security Council Resolution 2250 carries important momentum, whatever its shortcomings. While unprecedented, the resolution is the culmination of several years’ worth of efforts on the part of advocates of youth inclusion—from youth groups and networks, civil society and NGOs, champions within the UN system, and member states. From the launch of the Inter-agency Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in 2014 to the UN Security Council Open Debate on Youth and CVE in 2015, to Jordan’s landmark Global Forum on Youth, Peace, and Security and the subsequent Amman Declaration, there is a clear push within the international community to acknowledge the positive role played by young people and increase meaningful participation of young people in decisionmaking processes. The emphasis on inclusion in the UN Sustainable Development Goals has also helped to build energy and advocate for the youth engagement agenda, as has the report of the Advisory Group of Experts on the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture. This latter report both mentions the need for youth to meaningfully participate in the building of “inclusive national ownership” in peacebuilding processes and broadens the youth agenda beyond the UN Security Council.32

Keeping up the momentum will require maintaining pressure on member states to implement, raising awareness about the resolution on the community level and how it can be used to further youth political participation, and running with provisions that are already built into the resolution, such as the global progress study discussed in greater detail below. It is also critical that the global community learn from the experience of previous, similarly designed resolutions, such as the Women, Peace, and Security Resolution (SCR 1325), including its over-securitization (at times).33 It will be important for the two to move forward as mutually reinforcing, though separate, agendas, acknowledging the lesser concern that the youth, peace, and security agenda become subsidiary to the women, peace, and security agenda.34

In addition to the momentum it generates, the fact that this resolution is the first of its kind increases its potential to have impact in that it can pave its own way forward. The global progress study, mandated by the resolution in order to assess youth contributions to peace and security across regions and to address data gaps, is positioned to steer the youth, peace, and security agenda—including its advocacy, implementation strategy, related programmatic output, and partnership development. The provision mandating the study is at times both vague and specific. It calls for the study to take place, but does not provide constricting parameters. This creates an opportunity for the champions of youth inclusion to shape the agenda around peacebuilding and prevention as it relates to young women and young men, and not around “hard security.”35 While acknowledging the importance of violent extremism, this may also help to maintain distance from more security-focused agendas.  The UN Secretary-General’s Plan to Prevent Violent Extremism, regardless of its flaws, is also an endorsement of an inclusive agenda.36

Finally, the greatest opportunity lies in the work, innovation, and determination of young people themselves; they are their best champions. The time is ripe for policymakers and power brokers in the Middle East and North Africa to think differently about youth, peacebuilding, and the value of inclusion as prevention. Youth leaders and activists, civil society, and the international community must continue to challenge policymakers to meaningfully incorporate young people into decisionmaking processes; to ensure that socioeconomic and political peacebuilding programs target young people early on in their development; and to address the underlying political, social and economic grievances that often drive extremism and impact young people’s relationships with their communities and states.

There are many parts of the world where the passage of this UN resolution may be largely irrelevant, and everyday life is about survival. However, whether in its implementation or its symbolism, the resolution will prove to be critical for empowering youth to participate in building global peace and security. As Saba Ismail, a young human rights activist and co-founder of an NGO operating in northwestern Pakistan, said in early 2016, “I am going to use this resolution to engage young people in peacebuilding at the policy level, and hold policymakers accountable if they don’t.”37 The inclusion of young people in decisionmaking processes that affect their lives is a matter of democratic imperative, demographic opportunity, and sustained peace and security in regions beyond fatigued by violence and conflict.


1 Christine Petré, “Have Arab Youth Lost Faith in Democracy?” Blog: Voices and Views: The Middle East and North Africa, World Bank, May 27, 2015,; “7th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2015,” Penn Schoen Berland, April 2015,

2 “Security Council, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2250 (2015), Urges Member States to Increase Representation of Youth in Decision-Making at All Levels,” UN News Center, December 9, 2015,

3 While the UN generally defines youth as between the ages of 15 and 24, SCR 2250 defines it as between 18 and 29 years of age.

4 As taken from meeting notes at an Expert Meeting on CVE, Security and Development, hosted by Hedayeh and the Human Security Collective in 2013: “The experts underlined that if the state does not allow space for addressing local communities’ grievances, state security and human security often become inversely proportional: for example, historical and cultural grievances of a minority addressed by the state apparatus only through hard security measures have created distrust towards the central government and increased the minority group’s delusion of insecurity within the national borders. As most of the experts wanted to stress, this cycle have repeatedly supported the feeding of ‘buffer zones’ for violent extremism since terrorism traditionally cashes in on people’s perception of insecurity.”

5 Jacob Kushner, “Playing Straight into the Hands of Al-Shebab,” Foreign Policy, May 28, 2014.

6 “The Power of 1.8 Billion: Adolescents, Youth, and the Transformation of the Future,” United Nations Population Fund, 2014,

7 “Middle East Youth,” Brookings Institution, 2016,

8 “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq,” Soufan Group, December 2015,

9 Ibid.

10 “Pathways to and from Violent Extremism: The Case for Science-based Field Research,” Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities, 112th Cong. (2010), (statement of Scott Atran, Directeur de recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris, Co-Founder, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford). Also see Minerva Nasser-Eddine, Bridget Garnham, Katerina Agostino, and Gilbert Caluya, “Countering Violent Extremism Literature Review,” Counter Terrorism and Security Technology Centre, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Australian Department of Defence, May 31, 2014.

11 Soufan Group (2015).

12 Steven Heydemann, “Countering Violent Extremism as a Field of Practice,” U.S. Institute of Peace, Insights 1 (2014),

13 “Inequality, Uprisings, and Conflict in the Arab World,” World Bank and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, MENA Economic Monitor, October 2015.

14 Perry Cammack, “To Address a Turbulent Arab World, Start With Governance,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 3, 2015,

15 Sarah Elder and Gianni Rosas, “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2015: Scaling up Investments in Decent Jobs for Youth,” International Labor Organization, October 8, 2015.

16 According to the International Labor Organization, “Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.” Ibid.

17 “Civic Engagement of Youth in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analysis of Key Drivers and Outcomes,” Mercy Corps, March 2012,

18 “Youth and Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice, and Violence,” Mercy Corps, March 2015,

19 “Youth in the MENA Region: How to Bring Them In,” OECD, 2015,

20 “Youth & Consequences,” Mercy Corps.

21 Nellie Horn, “How the Arab Spring Revived Tunisian Entrepreneurship,” Seedstars World Blog, October 25, 2014,; Zeinab Marzouk, “Is Tunisia the Region’s Next Startup Hotspot?” Tunisia Live, July 10, 2015,; “In Tunisia, Secretary Pritzker Meets with Government Officials, Business Leaders, and Entrepreneurs to Discuss Ways to Improve Economic

Opportunity,” U.S. Department of Commerce, March 5, 2015,

22 Marzouk 2015; Annie Slemrod, “Why Does No One Care about Yemen?” IRIN News, February 11, 2016,

23 Slemrod (2016).

24 “How Does the Iran-Saudi Conflict Affect Mideast Diplomacy?” Vali Nasr and Randa Slim, interview by Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour, January 4, 2016.

25 From Dan Murphy, “Reducing Yemen’s Houthis to ‘Iranian proxies is a mistake,” Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 2015: “Saudi and Iranian regional rivalry is certainly real, and Saudi Arabia has been horrified at the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq since 2003 and its involvement fighting on the side of both Baghdad and the Assad regime in Syria. But while various factions are projecting their own regional concerns onto Yemen, the people fighting and dying for power inside the country are far more concerned with local issues.”

26 Founded in 2010, Resonate!Yemen was created to strengthen young people’s engagement in and connection to civic and political issues in the country through trainings, seminars, and roundtables with other youth groups and international policymakers; Maryam Jamshidi, The Future of the Arab Spring: Civic Entrepreneurship in Politics, Art, and Technology Startups, (Oxford: Elsevier, 2014).

27 “About The Voice of Libyan Women,” accessed March 5, 2016,

28 VLW’s Noor Campaign utilizes media and seminars to raise awareness of women’s rights and treatment though Ayas from the Quran and Hadiths.

29 “Together We Build It” Facebook page, accessed March 5, 2016,معا-نبنيها-together-we-build-it-207875529295935/.

30 Rami G. Khouri, “Beware the hoax of countering violent extremism,” Al-Jazeera, September 29, 2015.

31 Jay Giedd, “Interview: Inside the Teenage Brain,” Frontline, January 31, 2002.

32 “The Challenge of Sustaining Peace: Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture,” United Nations, June 29, 2015.

33 “United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000),” United Nations,{65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9}/WPS SRES1325.pdf.

34 “Examining the Complementarities between the Women, Peace, and Security and Youth, Peace, and Security Agendas: Strengthening the Participation through SCR 2250,” Policy Forum of the International Peace Institute, New York, NY, March 17, 2016,

35 The previously mentioned Amman Declaration notes that “the challenges faced by young people when engaging in building peace, transforming conflicts and countering violence remain highly gender-dependent,” and that “it is necessary to create mechanisms that not only ensure equality among genders, but also address the hardships that are gender specific.” Amman Youth Declaration on Youth, Peace, and Security, adopted in Amman, Jordan, August 22, 2015.

36 This plan includes 70 recommendations for member states and provides little in the way of operational guidance. There is also confusion as to where the plan falls within the larger UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism framework, or vice versa, the defining terms of violent extremism, the drivers of extremism, an overly-expansive agenda, and the over-arching framing of the conflict as one between governments and violent extremists; and Richard Atwood, “The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism,” The International Crisis Group Commentary, February 8, 2016,

37 International Peace Institute (2016).