“The Multilateral System Wasn’t Created to Be Inclusive”: Q&A with Alaa Murabit

Alaa Murabit participates in an open debate on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. New York, October 13, 2015. (Amanda Voisard/UN Photo)

“The greatest challenge for the multilateral system right now is that it’s just not inclusive enough, and a lot of people have lost faith in it,” said Alaa Murabit, Founding President of the Voice of Libyan Women.

According to Dr. Murabit, platforms don’t necessarily exist within the structure of the United Nations, or even states, for youth involvement and for youth to be architects of the system.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Independent Commission on Multilateralism retreat on engaging, supporting, and empowering global youth, she said young women face particularly disproportionate disadvantages. These include everything from conflict to unemployment, and limits on land ownership and inheritance and reproductive rights.

She said that correcting the multilateral system will require a re-shifting to better ensure that it’s more inclusive and for people in positions of power within the system to create the space for young people to be involved in decision-making.

Dr. Murabit spoke to International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Warren Hoge.

Can you remember when the whole idea of age first became an issue for you?

When I started my organization, I was 20, 21. I remember I was with somebody who I consider a mentor who told me in good faith, “There are going to be four challenges that you’re going to come across in your career if you’re focusing on human rights, particularly in the multilateral system.” And I asked him what those four challenges were, and he said “the usual suspects,” so of course, my faith, my ethnicity and my gender. And then he said, “But the last one you’re lucky—you’ll grow out of it—and that’s your age.”

It seemed interesting to me, because he told me quite specifically, “Be very non-threatening, and don’t freely give your opinions.” And of course, those were never things that I could do very easily, so I figured I would focus instead on getting people my age more included in the multilateral system.

So when you did that, what was your discovery as to why young people were being held back?

I think what’s important to recognize is that it’s very much two-fold. The multilateral system, and the state system in general, wasn’t necessarily created to be inclusive. It was created to govern, and it was created to be, in a sense, efficient, which unfortunately, it’s not so much anymore. But that was the intended purpose, and that isn’t necessarily an inclusive structure.

What you find is that the platforms within the UN or within the multilateral structure—and even the state structure—don’t necessarily exist for youth involvement and youth inclusion and most importantly, in my opinion, for youth to be architects of that. And so what youth I think have done, and what young people have done—which is quite amazing—in the past 10, 15 years, is really create those platforms for themselves.

The social media sites that are most used were created by youth, by young men and women. If you look at businesses, there’s a lot of youth who have utilized that new technology to create businesses and to create economic opportunities. If you look at military, a lot of insurgencies have been led by youth. And so we have to look at the underlying reasons. Ultimately what it comes down to is, young people are creating their own systems and structures because they don’t necessarily have faith in the systems and structures that work, because they don’t represent them, and they don’t see them as legitimate or credible.

Within the context of young people, why do you think young women in particular have a more difficult time?

I am very glad you asked that question, because people often don’t recognize the difference. Young women face disproportionate disadvantages, particularly when it comes to conflict settings, unemployment, land ownership, inheritance rights, reproductive rights. I mean, we could go on and on and on. To get a bank loan is a very, very difficult process in a lot of countries for young women. We also don’t recognize that the youth “cut” for young women is much younger, because the second she gets married, within her society she’s no longer considered a youth. She is now considered a mature, married woman. And that becomes very difficult within the multilateral system, and when we look at these new ideas and commissions and these Sustainable Development Goals, we’re talking about youth. The way it’s understood—in a political frame—is youth is young men, and women’s rights are older women. And so that group of young women gets very, very heavily neglected.

Now that the youth agenda has been more securitized because of youth, peace, and security, we find that happening more and more. That it will be a group of young men around the table, and they’ll say, “Well, how do we get young men to put the guns down?” without recognizing how young women are affected in conflict and how young women are important in overcoming conflict. Because we fail to see that if they are situationally different—if there are different disadvantages for both young men and young women—then there are different opportunities for inclusion, and it’s very important to recognize their roles in society.

Finally, you’ve made it pretty clear that young people have lost faith in the multilateral system. Is it correctable? And if it is correctable, is it something that young people have to do, or is there something that other generations should do to help this happen?

I think the beauty of the multilateral system, and the state system in general, is that everything is always correctable; it just takes innovation and it takes courage, in a sense. I think it has to be reciprocal. There are a lot of young people who want to be involved in the multilateral system, who want to be involved in political decision-making, who want to be involved in economic decision-making, climate change, reproductive rights. People who want to be part of those conversations, and they feel as though that space doesn’t exist.

By the same token, there are people in positions of power within the multilateral system who could create that space, who could widen that space, who could ensure that there’s greater outreach to people in communities that don’t necessarily have a lot of faith in the multilateral system. So in my view, it’s a lot about credibility and legitimacy, and it’s about giving a voice to people who normally don’t have a voice, ensuring that it’s not just a 10-minute meeting where you say, “Yes, I’ve heard you.” But rather, “OK, so how can we implement this? How can we institutionalize this? How can we maintain this relationship?”

I definitely think it’s correctable, I honestly think that it will take—from both sides, from the existing multilateral structure—a kind of re-shifting to see how we can better ensure that it’s more inclusive to youth, to women, to minorities, to indigenous people. Because I think the greatest challenge for the multilateral system right now is that it’s just not inclusive enough, and a lot of people have lost faith in it.

This interview was originally published on the ICM website.