The role of young people in conflict transformation and intercultural dialogue

15 April 2013, Conference Centre, Andorra La Vella,

Welcome speech by Michael O’Brien, Vice-President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe



Ladies and gentlemen

Let me start by saying how pleased I am to be able to take part in this seminar which is being organised within the Youth Peace Ambassadors Project.  Last December, I was honoured to attend the launch of one of the projects which will be showcased here today.  I was impressed by the project and can but applaud the cooperation between the local council concerned, represented by my colleague from the Congress Sherma Batson, and the initiators of the project, represented here by Tom Cottam.

The current economic and financial crisis is having a dramatic effect on our society.  We are all aware of the soaring unemployment rates.  The number of young people unemployed today is particularly worrying with rates at more than 50% in some Council of Europe member states such as Spain and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  But in a Europe struck by recession and the crisis, we are also seeing a dramatic rise in extremism.  Manifestations of intolerance are on the up and there has been an increase in instances of violence committed by individuals or organised extremist groups against migrants and minorities as people try to find a scapegoat for their distress brought on by unemployment and poverty.

The title of this project “Youth Peace Ambassadors” is very grand and conjures up images of young people heading off into war zones to negotiate world peace but, as we can see from the rise in violence and hate speech, the problems are much closer to home: citizens’ human rights are being violated in our towns, on our doorsteps, and we must work together to fight discrimination, hate speech and violence.  More than ever, Youth Peace Ambassadors have an important role to play in advocating for the respect of citizens’ human rights and dignity, and in fostering intercultural dialogue. 

If Sherma and I are here today representing the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, it is because towns and regions too have an important role to play.  It is particularly important for us – as elected representatives – to unite firmly against prejudice and hate speech and to denounce them publicly.  Building communities together, from the grassroots up, involving all residents – regardless of their origin – is the essence of interculturalism.  Today’s growing European diversity is both a source of strength but also a major challenge to European democracy and public authorities such as those on which we both serve.

One of the ways the Congress is promoting interculturalism in the towns and regions of the Council of Europe member states is through its support to the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Network.  This Network has adopted the concept of diversity advantage, that is to say the cities which are members regard migrants and minorities as a resource for economic, social and cultural development, not as a threat to social cohesion.  The Congress has been supporting the Intercultural Cities Network since 2009 when it adopted a number of recommendations addressed to towns and regions.  The Congress called on local authorities to recognize the contribution migrants and foreign residents make to European societies and to adopt local intercultural policies. 

The true challenge to local authorities is to find ways of making this diversity work for the benefit of the entire community.  And this is where cooperation between youth organisations or young people such as the youth peace ambassadors, and municipalities is important and can make a difference.  You can help to build intercultural relations and thus transform social cohesion conflicts, for example through projects like the one Tom set up; local councils, such as Stevenage Borough Council on which Sherma sits, can support those projects.  I won’t say any more about that particular project so as not to spoil Sherma and Tom’s presentation, but cooperation can take many forms, such as financial help or in-kind contributions, and this is the kind of cooperation the Congress is promoting.  All local and regional authorities should be inspired by what can be achieved when young people, civil society and municipal councils work together on a project such as the Stevenage one.

Sherma and I will be staying with you over the next one and a half days and I encourage you to use us as resource persons, to ask us questions and to share any ideas you have with us.  We will be happy to advise you.

I wish you all an enriching and successful seminar.

Thank you for your attention.