Seminar on youth and conflicts – Strasbourg, 31 March – 2 April 2003 

An important role for young people

Marianne Heiberg, who led the Middle-East conflict workshop for young Armenians and Azeris, draws a number of lessons

Question : Marianne Heiberg, you are a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs. Over the last three days you have been leading a workshop on the Middle-East conflict attended by five young Armenians and five young Azeris. Did you consider this a valuable exercise and if so how valuable?

Marianne Heiberg : Naturally I asked myself that question. Those taking part have told me that they found it extremely useful. Among the reasons they advanced was the fact that when they raised their own conflict - in other words the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan - the result was more or less continuous squabbling. But when they discussed someone else's conflict their points of view changed and it made co-operation - something they were not used to - much easier. I believe that this is very valuable.

Question : Do you think this could have a practical fall-out for them or will it remain a purely theoretical exercise, an intellectual game?

Marianne Heiberg : What they hope to achieve when they return home is a certain distance vis-à-vis their own conflict - to be able to view it from a broader perspective and not be confined to the sectarian standpoint that has so far dominated their approach. If this can be translated into better conflict management so much the better and I hope that will be the case.

Question : You are a specialist in this type of exercise. Do you think that seminars such as this can bring about new responses and new approaches? Where the international community has so far failed to deliver, can young people change the course of events?

Marianne Heiberg : I believe firstly that young people always have an important role to play and that unfortunately their voice is too often ignored. The limit to the exercise we have just gone through is that those concerned only had a day and a half at their disposal. And this to learn about a conflict of which they were only vaguely aware and then to understand it and try to find possible solutions. Ideally they should have had a little more time. To attempt to understand and resolve the Middle-East conflict in 48 hours is really an enormous challenge.

Question : Do you think though that in 48 hours their opinions had time to evolve - on the Middle-East conflict, the subject of their discussions, or on their own dispute?

Marianne Heiberg : They told me that all this had made them think. One thing they did understand is how destructive a violent response to a conflict can be. Examining the Middle-East conflict, which is extremely violent, certainly offered them food for thought.