Remarks at UC Berkeley International House

Ronan Farrow, Special Advisor for Humanitarian and NGO Affairs, Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
Berkeley, CA
March 17, 2011

Thank you Cynthia for the introduction, and for your work on this event.

First of all… well first of all I have to apologize for being wildly overdressed. (Laughter.) Clearly I’ve been working for the man too long. (Laughter.) I want to thank Amnesty International, a voice of conscience the U.S. government listens to closely. And I want to thank my fellow young participants here today. I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say that the project you are engaged in, I am engaged in, and that we must all push the envelope on together, is of the utmost importance. But you may find it interesting just how much we’re part of the choir in this administration, and just how closely we’re listening to efforts like yours.

You all know the stakes. More than 60 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 30. That demographic is one of the foremost potential drivers of economic and social progress. It is also among the great potential threats to security: 86 percent of all countries experiencing a new outbreak of civil conflict have populations with a significant majority under 30.

These realities are not lost on America’s allies, who work aggressively to attract the world’s most promising youth to their universities and job markets. Nor are they lost on our adversaries: extremist and criminal organizations have comprehensive youth strategies that offer young people a sense of empowerment and belonging.

Engaging with and positively empowering youth is inextricably tied to our national security and prosperity. (Applause.)

I come to this Summit with a personal commitment to youth issues. I am a young person – surprising, I know. (Laughter.) And my work prior to this was as a youth spokesperson with the UN. In that capacity, I spoke with spoke with countless teenagers in refugee camps and rebel-held territories across the horn of Africa.

I met people like Yahia, a child soldier who was my own age, 17, when I encountered him in Sudan. Yahia had been fighting with a rebel group, Sudanese Liberation Army since he was 13. Early one morning, he had been awakened by the sound of gunfire. Sudanese government-backed militia carrying out a brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign in Darfur had surrounded his village. On camels and horseback they swept through, killing men, raping women and setting fire to homes.

Yahia's entire family was slaughtered. He survived by hiding among the corpses of his relatives. When it was over, he walked seven hours, alone, across the desert before encountering the rebel troops he still calls his family.

Like many child soldiers I talked to, Yahia says he was eager to take up arms. When I met him, he was thrusting a Kalashnikov at the sky and shouting slurs against an opposing rebel faction. "I have no way to be heard but to fight," he told me. It’s a sentiment I heard echoed in countries across the world, and that I now hear in my current job in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Young people are at ready to be involved in political solutions – using whatever tools available.

But the exciting thing is those tools are changing. It’s not just Kalashnikovs any more. We are seeing young people in tremendously difficult circumstances turning to peaceful tools for reform: to Facebook, to Twitter, to nonviolent protest. The events of recent weeks are a testament to the power of youthful revolution to be not only powerful, but also peaceful. (Applause.)

It is up to us as a global community to make sure we increase access to tools of peace and prosperity, and harness the power of youth as a positive. (Applause.)

Now the comforting thing I’ve found in joining the U.S. Government is that America is listening. It is a priority for our President, who said in his seminal Cairo speech, "to young people of every faith, in every country - you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world." (Applause.) And it is a personal lifelong passion for one of my bosses, Secretary Clinton, who has spent a career championing the rights of children and young people and who has been tirelessly engaging in dialogue with young people around the world, especially in recent weeks.

That is why I’m pleased to be able to tell you that, at the State Department, Secretary Clinton has launched an unprecedented youth policy taskforce to exhaustively review our policies on youth issues and amplify our ability to listen to young voices. Under Secretaries Maria Otero and Judith McHale, both heroic, powerhouse advocates of youth rights themselves, have been championing this process, and the lead working group has been chaired over the last six months by myself and the head of education at USAID.

This taskforce has been rooted in many of the values you’ve talked about today: opportunity for education, for employment, for the ability of young people to assemble and express themselves fully and engage in their societies. We’ve brought together offices across our government to examine how we can best address youth issues and partner with youth voices. And that partnership that we’re committed to developing begins right here, with the energized, empowered young people themselves.

We’ve also focused on our shared responsibility for public service, for innovation, for tolerance, and for the need to protect our planet, as we ourselves will be leading it in years to come. And we are operating on the principle that our President reminds us of - that yes, we can, and yes, you can. (Applause.)

And that is the note that I’ll leave you on – that we can and we must and we will band together to create channels through which young, peaceful voices are driving peace and prosperity. And let this be just a beginning in our process of linking arms with our young brothers and sisters around the world to ensure all our governments are listening. (Applause.)       

Thank you.