UNITED NATIONS - UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other speakers at a forum - sponsored by Pakistan, Norway and the UN - on Thursday expressed the view that while young people are prime targets of extremist recruiters, they can also play leadership roles in fighting terrorism and creating greater opportunities for all.

“I do not agree that young people are the leaders of tomorrow. More and more, they are the leaders of today,” the Secretary-General said, as he praised Pakistan Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi for her initiative in holding the event on “Investing in Youth to Counter Terrorism”. “I thank all the young women and men who are stepping up and assuming those responsibilities,” he added.

On her part, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi told the largely-attended event that Pakistan had, through a comprehensive strategy, turned back the terrorist tide. “My country and its brave people have met this threat with fortitude and determination”.

In his keynote address, Guterres, the UN chief, said, “Nearly half the world’s population —46 per cent — is 24 years-old or younger; Africa and the Middle East have the highest proportions of young people.”

The radicalisation of young people is a source of deep concern in rich and poor countries alike, as poisonous ideas flow across borders at the touch of a button or the tap of a tweet, Guterres said.

Terrorist groups exploit social, economic and political injustices to entice young people through false propaganda that glorifies distorted ideologies, while unscrupulous recruiters using social media to lure unsuspecting teenagers down dangerous roads.

Guterres observed that “violent extremist groups target and invest in young people because they are aware of their potential and their strong desire for change.”

In her address, Maleeha Lodhi said that over the past two decades, terrorism had emerged as the most pervasive threat to peace and security even as the international community had intensified its efforts to address the challenge.

Young people, she underscored, were the most vulnerable to terrorism.

“Terrorist and extremist groups prey on this vulnerability, recruiting youth to their violent ways by playing on their sensitivity to injustice and oppression; by propagating hate, intolerance and violence as the sole response to myriad inequities”, she added.

While agreeing that lack of good governance and absence of the rule of law contribute to the “conditions conducive to terrorism”, she pointed out that more significantly, terrorism is spawned by foreign interference and occupation, political and economic injustice and marginalisation as well as discrimination and social exclusion.

Pakistan, she said, had witnessed terrorism emerge and expand in the region as a consequence of unending turmoil and conflict caused principally by a series of foreign interventions in Pakistan’s neighbourhood over the past several decades. But Pakistan had turned the tide, she said.

Maleeha Lodhi stressed that hard power was a necessary but not sufficient factor in fighting terrorism.

Pakistan, she said, has undertaken the largest anti-terrorism military campaign anywhere in the world, deploying 200,000 troops. But we complemented the use of force with a holistic National Counter Extremism Policy that encompasses political, economic, social and cultural elements, she added.

She also told the gathering that Pakistan has mobilised faith leaders and scholars to issue a Fatwa to unequivocally condemn terrorism.

“The Fatwa also states that the territory of Pakistan will not be permitted to be used for terrorism anywhere”, she said.

Maleeha Lodhi recounted the steps taken by Pakistan govt to engage youth in productive activities, including a comprehensive “Prime Minister’s Youth Programme”, which aims at providing the young and under privileged with skills training, access to higher education as well as to employment.

A short video, highlighting Pakistan’s efforts to turn the tide against terrorism and embark on multidimensional efforts to create an environment for sustainable peace and progress following successive law enforcement was also shown at the event.

The Norwegian Ambassador to UN, Tore Hattrem, in his remarks called for empowerment of youth, calling them the “most important asset” in the fight against terrorism.

Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Voronkov, who heads the UN Counter-terrorism Office — a sponsor of the event — appreciated the initiative of starting a dialogue on engaging youth to counter terrorism.

He underlined the need for more of such events to develop a consensus on a comprehensive approach to address challenges being faced by youth across world.

For her part, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, asserted, “the fact is, the vast majority of youth are peaceful, and are not in danger of participating in violence.”

“On the contrary,” she continued, “young people’s resilience is transforming local communities while combating extremist movements.”

After the opening session, the panelists highlighted “Challenges faced by Youth in Different Parts of the World” and their efforts to help youth deal with these specific challenges.

The first panelist from Pakistan, Ahmad Jalal, head of the Aman Foundation, highlighted the Foundation’s work in empowering youth.

Dr. Feriha Peracha, Director of the Sabaoon Project gave a presentation on the efforts by Sabaoon towards the de-radicalisation of youth involved in violent acts.

The third panelist, Mrs. Shannon Martinez, the US Regional Coordinator for Against Violence and Extremism Network (AVE) emphasised the need to socially integrate young people to prevent them from falling for twisted ideologies.

As a former white supremacist, who has left her life of hate behind, and now works on combating violent extremism, she shared her moving experiences with the audience.

After the presentations, the floor was opened to participants’ comments. Speakers from different regions of the world thanked Pakistan and Norway for their timely initiative to organise this event on an issue of critical importance.

Ambassadors and representatives who spoke on the occasion included Qatar, Tunisia, Finland, UAE, Mexico, United States, Morocco, Egypt, Ireland, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Italy.

The event was attended by a large number of Ambassadors, diplomats, UN Secretariat staff and members of civil society.