Geneva panel highlights: youth activism through the lens of Right Livelihood Laureates

News 21.03.2024

Right Livelihood Laureates illuminated the struggles and triumphs facing youth activists in a recent panel discussion organised by our Geneva office. With speakers including Laureates from Belarus, Cambodia, and Egypt, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, the event painted a vivid picture of the evolving landscape of youth activism.

Natallia Satsunkevich, representing Belarusian Laureate organisation Human Rights Center “Viasna”, shared her journey, beginning as a civil rights summer school attendee to becoming an activist with Viasna to shed light on the abuses of Belarus’s repressive regime.

“I realised that I have this power to monitor and control the government,” she said. “This is obviously the aim of civil society in each country.”

She has faced backlash for her work: her apartment was searched and her mother was questioned by authorities. Eventually, Satsunkevich had to flee Belarus to avoid criminal prosecution. Five of her Viasna colleagues, including founder and Right Livelihood Laureate Ales Bialiatski, are imprisoned for their work.

“Nevertheless, I think the decision to become a human right activist and joining Viasna was one the best decisions of my life,” she said, pointing to the close friendships and working relationships she has developed. “The most important point is that I feel like I am doing the right thing, I know that I am making this world better.”

She called on young people around the world to “check your rights”: keep an eye on leaders and make sure that all human rights are respected.

Ratha Sun, from the Laureate organisation Mother Nature Cambodia, highlighted the innovative approaches of young activists. Despite facing legal challenges and imprisonment, the group’s viral campaigns and grassroots mobilisation have sparked significant environmental advocacy.

“For all our videos and campaigns, we … think about creativity and technical ideas to get more involvement from young people,” Sun said. “We also work closely with the local community that is being affected by the project [we’re fighting].”

The group’s activism has stopped damaging construction and extraction projects such as a hydropower dam and sand mining.

Their successes have resulted in more attention from the Cambodian public and, at the same time, also drew the ire of the government.

“Between 2015 and now, 11 members of Mother Nature Cambodia have been in jail, and now, six of us still have charges against us from the court,” Sun said, noting that the charges include insulting the king and plotting against the government. Sometimes, they are also accused of being members of the CIA.

“Even though we are facing 10 years in prison, our activists, who are young, are still standing to fight the government,” Sun said.

2016 Laureate Mozn Hassan, the founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Doria Feminist Fund, talked about the double bind of being a young female activist in the Global South. Battling stereotypes and systemic challenges, Hassan emphasised the importance of expressing feminism and fighting gender-based discrimination creatively.

“Being a woman in these contexts is so problematic and has all these barriers from the private and the public – and all of them are affecting us,” Hassan said. “Especially if they are young: … it is also about resources, accessibility and acceptance.”

She noted that in the Middle East and North Africa region, the stigma for young feminist activists working on gender issues has been increasing, and they are targeted more often.

“For example, in Iraq, it’s not allowed to name any of the activity as something relating to gender,” she said, noting that this was especially the case for young activists expressing their femininity or sexuality in non-traditional ways.

When it comes to the tools young activists are using, in many countries, such as Egypt, they are being targeted and imprisoned for social media posts.

Having just finished a report on youth and child human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, provided a global perspective. She highlighted the unique contributions of youth and child activists, drawing attention to their innovative use of social media, decentralisation, and creativity in campaigning.

“Young people face the same challenges as all other human rights defenders, and they often use the same approaches as other human rights defenders,” Lawlor said. “But where they differ is that they are very creative, and they have novel tools and methods.”

She noted their “extremely clever use of social media” that can garner attention.

However, she also pointed out the challenges they face, including exclusion from formal decision-making.

“Ageism is a frequent barrier to young and child activism: Young defenders feel they are not being heard, not being taken seriously, and their views are not being taken into account,” Lawlor said. “Even when their participation in public and political decision-making has been increased, it’s usually a tokenistic box-ticking exercise.”

Young activists also face rampant online harassment, requiring strengthened protection and security for human rights violations perpetrated online.

Lawlor’s new report aims to address these challenges and enhance protections for young activists.

The event, moderated by Right Livelihood Deputy Director Jenny Jannson Pearce, underscored the importance of solidarity, creativity, and resilience young people demonstrate daily in the fight for human rights and climate action. It also highlighted Right Livelihood’s ongoing support work to lift the voices of those who work tirelessly to create a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.

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