Tobias Bütow Tobias Bütow
Tobias Bütow, Secretary-General of the Franco-German Youth Office
Democracy and human rights

“More youth exchanges in times of war and peace!”

Interview with Tobias Bütow

79 years ago, on 8 May 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally, bringing an end to World War II in Europe. Today, faced with a new aggression in Europe, the question of how young people can help build peace is more topical than it has been for a long time. Tobias Bütow, Secretary-General of the Franco-German Youth Office, recently spoke before the UN Security Council on Resolution 2250 – Youth, peace and security and outlined Europe’s experience of reconciliation after World War II. To him, youth exchanges and youth participation belong together, as they help create safe spaces for young people to contribute towards peace and security. The editorial team of reached out to Tobias Bütow for an interview.

07.05.2024 / Christian Herrmann Tobias Bütow, Europa is currently commemorating the end of World War II – in wartime. A few months ago, you spoke before the UN Security Council on Resolution 2250 – Youth, peace and security – and highlighted youth exchange as an instrument for securing peace. Will this now be set out in writing somewhere and in turn, assume practical relevance?

Tobias Bütow: The United Nations do not make history by taking rapid decisions; instead, they seek consensus. When a multilateral system such as the UN chooses to pursue a new approach by consensus, this can have a long-term global impact. One key aspect of international youth policy at the UN is resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security, which was unanimously adopted in December 2015. However, there is not enough Europe in this UN strategy. Maybe the assumption was, wrongly, that Europe is a guarantor for a peaceful order and that that is the end of the story. Either way, the European experience of youth work post 1945 is not yet sufficiently reflected in the UN youth strategy’s lessons learnt.

The invitation to speak at this consultative meeting of the UN Security Council had come from Albania, which held the presidency at the time, jointly with France and Germany. These consultative formats are open to all member states of the United Nations. The meeting on the newly established UN Youth Office, RYCO (the Regional Youth Cooperation Office) and the Franco-German Youth Office was well attended, also by the US Ambassador. The third report of the UN Secretary-General on youth, peace and security is currently being drafted, in which the subject of youth will be given particular focus. However, no decisions are adopted at these consultative meetings. That being said, there are two aspects I believe need to be considered also by German policymakers. One, assuming we take youth, peace and security seriously and are confident that young people contribute towards reconciliation and peace, we do need to consider – as the UN Secretary General recently also said – how to provide sufficient funding. This is particularly pressing in times of war. The value of each additional investment a government makes in youth participation and youth exchange cannot be underestimated. Two, the European experience post 1945, where young Europeans came together and learned to recognize each other as friends, not enemies, is proof that young people were peacemakers long before the UN adopted resolution 2250. In other words, these intergenerational and international learning processes must be strengthened. The European example, which involves bilateral and multilateral youth exchange in the wake of World War II, the EU’s Eastern enlargement and also the Balkan wars, is a lasting source of inspiration in these challenging times, and reveal hands-on ways to build a more peaceful world.

Exchange requires stable funding The practical implications of resolution 2250 are difficult to grasp. How can we build concrete action on the basis of this rather abstract document?

Tobias Bütow: While it is indeed a political document, it does contain a compass, a strategy of sorts. Its practical relevance needs to be drawn out. In wartime, young people are victims or combatants, but they are rarely recognized as actors for peace. This is the key change brought about by resolution 2250. It is naïve to imagine de-escalation without input from young people; moreover, it’s historically wrong. There were youth exchanges for young French and German citizens before 1963, so before the Franco-German Youth Office was established. There were even encounters during World War II, as part of the resistance movement. That is what we can build on. International youth exchange can be integrated in the UN strategy as a clear field of action, to be used a tool also in times of crisis. In March 2022, shortly after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, FYGO helped organize a multilateral ad-hoc meeting of youth associations in Budapest. There, in the Council of Europe’s European Youth Centre, young people came together to discuss what needs the youth organisations had in this exceptional situation, what kind of support and solidarity they could offer to young Ukrainians and what networks would have to be built to make that happen. The solidarity expressed by young Europeans towards their partners in Ukraine is as impressive as it is crucial. Similarly Germany’s Federal Youth Council has expressed solidarity at the youth association level, as has the German-Polish Youth Office through its trilateral exchanges between Poland, Germany and Ukraine. This is getting public recognition. This year, the German-Polish Youth Office was awarded the youth version of the International Prize of the Peace of Westphalia, which went to France’s president Emmanuel Macron. Folded into all of these milestones is an appeal to governments to ensure sufficient funding. These days, the Weimar Triangle is more crucial than ever. In times of war and peace, we need more international youth exchange.

Youth work offers safe spaces You’ve mentioned Ukraine. Youth exchange was not capable of preventing the Russian aggression, and it will not be capable of ending it. What can youth work actually achieve in such a situation?

Tobias Bütow: I’d broaden that question to ask what external stakeholders can achieve in a situation involving war and violent escalation. For instance, they could offer safe spaces for activists. Alexei Navalny was admitted to Berlin’s Charité hospital for treatment – a prominent example of a safe space. Stakeholders can accommodate and support young refugees. Youth exchange, too, provides spaces where young people can come together to exchange views. We should not underestimate the power of such spaces. The Oslo process to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine originated in a series of academic meetings on neutral ground where the parties could speak and reflect freely about possible pathways to peace. Only later was the process taken up at the political level. Almost three decades ago now, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their courage and commitment to the process. Today, in an age dominated by social media and fake news, young people are taking an active stance against the depictions of violence they encounter online, for instance on TikTok. For this, they need support from policymakers and attention from the media. In your remarks before the UN Security Council, you highlighted the link between youth, peace and security and youth participation. Give us an example of what you mean by that.

Tobias Bütow: For instance, official delegations travel to crisis and conflict regions such as the Republic of Moldova, the Maghreb or the Eastern Mediterranean. Why don’t they take along representatives of youth associations? Likewise, the German Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs should invite youth associations and youth experts to hearings as a matter of course. Finally, reconstruction schemes in Ukraine can rely on the support and collaboration of young people from all over Europe. However, this requires both financial and political backing.

We need the wisdom of the younger generation Can this be broken down to the local level? After all, for the most part youth work takes place locally.

Tobias Bütow: Absolutely. For instance, we ran a German-French-Ukrainian project in Berlin that was part of the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty and involved artists and young refugees from Ukraine. While preparing for the project, we kept worrying about the appropriateness of celebrating during a war. But the Ukrainian participants found their own artistic forms of expression and presentation, which gave them the freedom to engage with taboo topics. Youth participation can be a crucial part of dealing with the fallout. That said, there is ample research that says that most young Europeans no longer feel that the greatest threat is their neighbours; rather, it’s now climate change. Plus, they feel helpless in the face of this threat and believe that their voices are not being sufficiently heard. The result is disillusionment. This feeling of powerlessness needs to be translated into active engagement, which crucially requires youth participation. Young people are experts in all important matters of the future. They are the only ones who know what they need, and we in turn need their wisdom.

Ein junger Mann spricht in ein Mikrofon
About democracy and human rights

IJAB understands international youth work and youth policy cooperation as contributors towards a strong civil society, a democratic polity, and greater social justice.

Ein junger Mann spricht in ein Mikrofon
About democracy and human rights

IJAB understands international youth work and youth policy cooperation as contributors towards a strong civil society, a democratic polity, and greater social justice.