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Right to speak? Only when you're 'right..'

I've found myself rather disturbed andannoyed at the portrayal of young people in the NI press in recent months,particularly surrounding issues of protests and political action. The media hasstripped young people of their agency, attributing any actions of a politicallycontentious nature to the undue influence of older people who 'should knowbetter' than to 'use' the youth to stir up trouble.

My question is, who decided that those youths didn't take up their postersand placards out of their own knowledge and experience? Who says they aren’tpolitically and socially awake enough to know what’s going on, to disagree withit, and do something about it? Who decided that since they are engaging in activities that are unpopular andcontroversial, they must have been put up to it by someone or something else?

Now not only are young people often painted as ‘hoods’ who are up to no goodand who only hang around and get drunk, anything they might do as far aspolitical action has been taken away from them as well. How do we know which ofthese young people are demonstrating because they have a firm belief in somethingand how many are rioting as a 'recreation'? Many people say it doesn't matter:young people with no first hand experience of the Troubles or the Civil Rightsmovement don’t understand what they’re shouting about, anyway, so they shouldstop shouting altogether. Alternatively, they’re being used to further others’political ends. Can this really be true?

The United NationsConvention on the Rights of the Child states in Articles 12-14 that every child shall have the right tofreedom of expression, the right to express his or her view freely in allmatters affecting the child, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience,and religion. Furthermore, Article 15 states that “States Parties willrecognize the rights of the child to freedom of association and to freedom ofpeaceful assembly.” Does it follow, then, that the protests in East Belfast and Ardoyne thissummer, up until the point at which they turned violent, are in accordance withthe rights of these young people under the UNCRC? Are young people not, often,a driving force for political change in many countries?

In the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 1990s, youngpeople under 25 were often the instigators of political movements, people whofinally stood up and said that they had had enough, the time for meek and quietpolitics was over. Not violently, but forcefully, in accordance with theirrights as human beings who just happen to be a bit shorter and younger thansome of the rest of us (though, at 23 years old and only 5’6”, I believe Istill fit in the category of ‘young person’…)

In the United Stateslast November, Barack Obama was elected president largely on the back of thevotes of youngvoters. As a young voter, I remember some people telling me that my views(and therefore my vote) were misguided on certain issues because I wasn't oldenough to have had those experiences or to know any better, and when I wasmiddle-aged, I would understand why voting this way was such a dumb thing todo. My priorities and my views would change.

So… my views right now aren’t important, because they might change? Because someone older than me thinks they’reirrational and irresponsible? I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count thenumber of times older people have done things that are irrational andirresponsible.

My point is this: Young people have views. Legitimate views. Views that areprotected as human rights. Some of these views come from experience. Some ofthem come from our parents. Some of them come from our education and academicas well as personal readings. Some of them come from our own minds andconsciences.

In the cases where young people are putting themselves in vulnerable anddangerous positions, or being put there by adults, we should all be concerned, and want it to stop. I’mnot saying that rioting is necessarily  a legitimate form of political expression (as opposed to peaceful protest), butcondemning the act is different from condemning the feeling behind it. We needto be careful what we condemn as ‘anti-social behaviour’ or ‘coercion to riot,’and what we need to pay attention to as a legitimate expression of frustrationand political belief.

Maybe young people in NorthernIreland (and elsewhere) are more influencedby their parents than by experiences. Maybe they're influenced by education.But maybe, just maybe, they are able to see how appalling conditions still arein a lot of places in their communities, and it makes them mad. It should. Weas a society need that.

Sometimes I think young people get involved because we're the only ones withenough energy to get really, really angry.

And that makes us really, really motivated.

After all, if youth are the future – why are you complaining about what wewant to do with it?


About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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