Youth Protests An Opportunity for Change

Young people haven’t given up hope yet: teenagers become more involved in politics if they believe they can have an influence and that their concerns will be heard.
Young people haven’t given up hope yet: teenagers become more involved in politics if they believe they can have an influence and that their concerns will be heard. | Photo (detail): © Adobe

Fridays for Future, BLM, MeToo, #Leavenoonebhind: the fact that young people feel compelled to protest in the streets is first and foremost the expression of a fundamental dissatisfaction with politics. But it’s also a signal that they haven’t yet given up their belief in change. Another way this can be seen currently is through demonstrations of solidarity with Ukraine.

By Ole Jantschek

Young people in Germany are political. One way we can see this is from the two themes regularly identified by youth researchers as their top concerns: the climate catastrophe, along with social diversity and equal rights. In the past two years, unsurprisingly, the consequences of the Covid crisis for education, work and health have become an additional focus. The Russian war of aggression on Ukraine has reinstated peace and solidarity with refugees on the list of most pressing causes.

Teenagers and young adults want their views to be heard and they want to be committed to a cause. As regards the form of political involvement they choose, the trends have remained unbroken for years: the classic routes of political commitment through parties, unions and other large-scale groups are becoming less significant compared with theme-based involvement in initiatives, protests and social movements. These are frequently organised by the young people themselves. In this context they can be seen to commit to their cause in a tangible way. However the political interest and dedication are strongly dependent on whether young people believe they are able to have an influence. Whether they have such an “expectation of self-efficacy” is closely linked with their socio-economic resources and the positive day-to-day experience of having their concerns listened to and taken seriously.

Looking at some of the key publicity-generating statements that have recently been associated with the younger generation – in addition to “Fridays for Future”, there are for instance the “Black lives matter” campaigns or protests against specific proposed regulations on the internet – one thing has become clear: this commitment is driven by the demand for authoritative rules and more of a positive concept of advancing democratisation, along with the desire for personal freedom and respect for diversity. Furthermore, the protests are networked at a transnational and digital level. Young activists are taking up similar themes in their own countries and learning from each other, in keeping with the motto “Think global, act local”.


Expression of a Turning Point

According to the theory of sociologist Andreas Rechwitz in his work The End of Illusions, which was published in 2019, the liberal-democrat pluralist systems of the West are at the threshold of a new political era. The period of opening liberalism that has characterised politics since the 1980s is coming to an end. Processes of economic but also sociocultural globalisation on the one hand, but also of social liberalisation, were a typical feature of this phase.

Against this background, the youth protests can be interpreted as an expression of a dual wish: they demonstrate an urgent concern that the global economy requires better regulation, and alternatives need to be found to the current economic model – which is based on the illusion of perpetual growth and is threatening to destroy the fundaments of our existence on this planet in the near future. But they also represent a high level of identification with the achievements of social liberalisation and the search for a new connection between diversity, community spirit and social balance. However, what Reckwitz describes as a new paradigm of “regulative, embedded liberalism” is only in its infancy, and the challenges are extreme: the climate crisis, the disruptive effects of globalisation and growing inequality – as well as the questioning of liberal democracy by aggressive authoritarian regimes from outside and (right-wing) populist actors from within.

An Opportunity for Radical Transformation

Society, politics and education systems would be well-advised to view the youth protests as an opportunity and resource for the necessary transformation. In our democracy, protests indicate fundamental conflict that cannot be resolved with the usual routines and mechanisms, according to sociologist Armin Nassehi. They highlight dissatisfaction in the community and force decision-makers to adopt a position. This emancipatory and progressive form of protest is uncomfortable because it creates visibility and urgency with respect to unsolved problems. But this is the only way to create space for something new to enter the world.

For this reason the causes and formats of current protests should be acknowledged as the expression of a fundamental dissatisfaction with policies that – despite the scientific evidence of climate crisis having been around for a long time – still have not found convincing answers. But protests should also be interpreted as a signal from a generation that does not want to relinquish belief in the possibility of change. The current challenge posed by Russia’s attack on Ukraine illustrates that involvement in protests and social movements is a formative experience for young people. It empowers them to have their perspectives heard, individually as well as collectively, and make things happen as a result. They are now proving this strength and their sensitivity to global situations through demonstrations of solidarity with Ukraine.

Sea Rescue: Rights and Responsibilities

Where there is widespread discontent, they don’t stop at peaceful demonstrations: it’s a regular occurrence for young people and adults to become active beyond that, blockading power stations or motorways in acts of civil disobedience, or engaging in specific causes. In recent years sea rescue has attracted particular attention: furious with the inactivity of the EU and their member states towards the thousands of people who drown every year on their way to Europe, activists patrol the Mediterranean to pick up shipwrecked migrants. They are a constant butt of criticism. What is the legal situation – is sea rescue a criminal offence, or is it our duty? We talked to legal scholar and human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak about the obligations to render assistance to those in distress at sea set out in international law.  
There is international law, humanitarian human rights, international maritime law - is there a legal vacuum on the subject of sea rescue?

In my opinion, there is no legal vacuum. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that you have to help those in distress at sea. Anyone who sees someone in need of help at sea is obligated to render assistance. Then there is the state’s obligation to protect human rights by safeguarding lives.  
So what is the debate based on in pure legal terms?

The governments’ argument is that these are not normal castaways. While refugees have the right to seek asylum in another state, migrants do not have the unlimited right to enter another territory. Essentially, African migrants coming through Libya are not typical people in distress at sea, since traffickers have deliberately placed them in that position. If non-governmental organisations (NGOs) then rescue the people traffickers have deliberately put in danger at sea, they are in effect facilitating their illegal activities. This is a political argument though; it does not change the legal situation.

Countries have some version of a coast guard to rescue those in distress at sea, but have now withdrawn this assistance. Is that legal? 

The state’s duty of protection is not absolute; it is relative. The question then becomes how much can we expect from the state, and how proactive does the state have to be. An individual ship has to intervene. But if I don’t send any ships out and make it harder for the ships of NGOs to do rescue work, I am closing my eyes to the problem, but not necessarily violating human rights.
Let’s take Sea Watch captain Carola Rackete as a concrete example. She defied the Italian authorities’ refusal to allow her to dock.

Legally the situation is unequivocal. Carola Rackete violated an Italian legal decree – the directive of the Minister of the Interior to be exact – in an act of civil disobedience. The directive, however, was a clear violation of the protection of the right to life by the Italian government. Rackete ignored an Italian directive, but her actions were covered by international law.
Regarding returning migrants to Libya: what is the legal basis and what are the legal concerns?

If I am aware of how inhumane the conditions in the Libyan camps are, then bringing people back there is a violation of the ban on repatriation. We can accuse a state of inhumane treatment not only if it allows people to be beaten, but also if it returns people to a country in which they are under threat of inhumane treatment. This is absolutely the case in Libya, and the European Court of Justice has ruled repatriating migrants there illegal and a violation of human rights.

Interview by Stefan Schocher, freelance journalist in Vienna. As a reporter he travels from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Central Asia.