Do Young People Have a Voice in the UN?


The follow up process to the implementation of the UN’s Global Goals (the SDGs); the signing of the Paris Agreement; Sweden being elected to the Security Council. These were some of the highlights from my eventful internship at the Swedish Mission to the United Nations in the New York Headquarters earlier this year. A place where World leaders, diplomats, activists and celebrities gather to take collective actions for Peace and Security, Sustainable Development and Human Rights. A career dream that came true.

During my internship I participated in some meetings and conferences that focused on Youth and Development – and I was positively surprised to see that young people’s importance is becoming more recognized in the UN-system. As the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated at some of these meetings:

– Youth are more than victims of poverty and economic downturn. They can be agents of change. Young people are the leaders of today.

Thus, young people are key actors for achieving Agenda 2030 and the Global Goals. In recent years, some initiatives have been taken in the UN, which aims to include youth. Since 2013, Ahmad Alhendawi has been appointed as an UN Youth Envoy. His role is to emphasize the needs and the rights of young people as well as giving advices to the Secretary General on youth issues.

But although the UN is making progress and has begun to understand the significance of youth inclusion, one could ask to what extent there is real representation of youth in the UN system? And who is (and who is not) able to participate? During my internship I noted three concerns that I would like to put forward.

Firstly, at the UN High-level Forum for Sustainable Development in July 2016, only six youth delegates from six of the UN’s 193 member states participated, meaning that the majority of the world’s countries did not have young representatives.

Secondly, at the majority of UN meetings youth delegates are not present. The young people who may be participating in these meetings are mostly interns – who are representing a country or an organization, thus, having the task to report back to their mission or organization on what have been said in the meeting. They do not have a voice. Furthermore, there are very few people who have the possibility to do an internship at the UN. The interns rarely receive financial support, meaning that only those people who are able to finance their own internship, can apply for it. Unfortunately, this excludes those people who are generally most marginalized, namely the poor.

Thirdly, a “popular form” of inclusion and participation (not only in the UN, but in general terms) is to add for instance youth-participation as a separate event. This could mean inviting young people to separate youth events, in which the majority of the participants are young people – but in which the influence over the outcomes, the decision making power and the ability to contribute to progressive actions on the issue, might be limited.

This is not to say that experienced experts with years of knowledge are not important, but simply suggesting that more diversity of perspectives and representation could benefit all and result in sustainable development.

To end with a positive note, at some of the UN meetings I participated in, there were young people invited as speakers – telling us interesting and heartbreaking stories about their struggles for Human Rights. I particularly remember a young woman who had become a victim of an acid attack, and had her whole body burned with acid. She proudly stood in front of us in the General Assembly hall and she told us about her struggle to survive the acid attack – and how she later had found the strength to continue working for Women’s Rights. A young heroine.

To conclude, half of the world’s population today is under 30 years old. We, the young peoples, play a crucial role in tackling Global Challenges and achieving Sustainable Development.

Thus, more positive actions and initiatives need to be taken to truly include us and give us a voice that is heard. We are not only the leaders of tomorrow; we are the leaders of today. We need to be invited, listened to, and included in these processes – and be motivated to really be the first generation that can eradicate poverty and tackle climate change.

Why Gender Equality Is Everyone’s Issue

The United Nations is not a finished product. And perhaps it never will be. UN Women as the youngest entity of the United Nations is a good example for the continuing renewal of the UN. It was ‘born’ in 2010, bringing together resources and mandates of four previously distinct parts of the UN system. By creating this institution, the UN General Assembly established one entity to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Considering that not one single country on this planet has yet achieved gender equality, the task of UN Women is tremendous. Worldwide, women suffer violence and discrimination, face occupational segregation and gender wage gaps and are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes. In fact, gender inequality is one of the most persistent human rights violations of our time.

UN Women takes on this challenge and is a strong champion for women and girls, basing its work on landmark agreements such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Most recently, UN Women has launched its HeForShe campaign with the prominent support of the English actress Emma Watson. In the heart of the campaign lies the idea that gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it is a human rights issue that affects all of us – women and girls, men and boys. We all benefit socially, politically and economically from gender equality in our everyday lives. When women are empowered, the whole of humanity benefits. Gender equality liberates not only women but also men, from prescribed social roles and gender stereotypes. As Emma Watson put it in her speech that went viral: Men and boys should ‘have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.´ Gender equality is not a question about men or women nor a fight between the sexes. Gender equality is a shared vision of human progress for all.

He For She

He For She

A country example shows how far we are still from a gender equal world: The Dominican Republic, a middle-sized state in the Caribbean, exemplifies the long, rocky road ahead. One in five Dominican adolescents has been pregnant at least once, the maternity mortality rate is almost double the projected Millennium Development Goals, the rate of intimate feminicides is one of the highest in the region, and every-day sexism is part of the social reality. UN Women has established a National Programme in this country which aims to change public policies, i.e. the structural framework, in order to accelerate the progress towards gender equality. However, the underlying challenge is to change mentalities and perceptions. Men who are socially pressured to ´be a man´, own as many women as possible, be the strong part in a relationship, the provider in a family, the ‘macho’ and ‘tigre’. Women who perceive their societal role as limited to birth-givers, care-takers and accessories of men. Public policies are an important starting point for accelerating the social transformation to a more equal society in which everyone can live a life free of stereotypes and prescribed gender roles. UN Women is working towards this change – unfortunately, like many UN entities, with very limited resources. Transforming politics and minds – as long as it might take – will eventually lead to a full realisation of human rights for everyone. This is worth all the efforts.

The 6th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum and Youth Event in Bali, Indonesia

The 6th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum and Youth Event in Bali, Indonesia

Photo Credit: Indonesia.Travel

Through the 29th and 30th of August, the 6th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum was celebrated in Bali, Indonesia. The theme for this year’s Forum was “Unity in Diversity: Celebrating Diversity for Common and Shared Values”, gathering heads of state and state representatives, academics, journalists and religious leaders from around the globe for a short but intense summit divided into break-out sessions dealing with such diverse topics as inter-religiosity in education or the treatment of migration stories in the media. Along with the Global Forum, a Youth Event took place during the 28th, where 100 youth from 41 different countries were selected from more than 3000 applicants to work together under the topic “The Role of Youth in Promoting “Unity in Diversity” through Education, Media, and Migration” in order to create youth-led recommendations which would be afterwards delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

I was one of the 100 lucky youths to actively participate in the Youth Event and attend the 6th UNAoC Global Forum, an experience I would like to share with a few words. The 28th was a very busy day. A briefing awaited us at 6:30 a.m. to go through the schedule of the day so there was little time to suffer the jet lag. Once at the convention center, after a welcoming speech delivered by the UN High Representative for the AoC Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, we split into four break out session with small discussion groups dealing with four main issues: Education, Media, Migration and Entrepreneurship/Employment. Every group consisted of around 25 participants but also of international observers and resource personnel. Amidst the 25 participants there was a facilitator, who mediated the discussion, two note-takers and a time tracker, who was to ensure the very packed schedule we had for the morning was adequately followed. Aside from a participant, I was also an active discussion member, serving as one of the note-takers in my small discussion group, which was in charge of creating recommendations dealing with the issue of migration. I felt happy and relieved to see that even though our roles had been strictly compartmentalized in theory, during the discussion the team of active participants helped each other in an effort to create a welcoming environment for everyone to contribute with their thoughts, to lead the discussion toward what were considered core issues and to phrase them in the shape of recommendations that would satisfy the whole of the group.

If there is something to learn from sitting at a table with 25 people you have just met, from many different countries and obvious different backgrounds, but all with a clear goal to achieve (and a tight schedule to do so) is that it can become frustrating, and at the same time incredibly intense and inspiring. Whatever you consider to be the pressing issues in your country, your culture or the political system you live in, they are probably not of much importance to someone living on the other side of the world, and that is OK. By sitting at such table one hears (probably for the first time) about the issues of the other. We learn to listen, we practice empathy, and struggle to compromise. With an exercise like this one it is also made clear how painfully difficult it must be in a real meeting between state representatives, as every word is questioned over and over and a single sentence feels like a great achievement. By the afternoon, after a quick lunch and even quicker visit to the Taman Ayun temple to clear our minds, the recommendations were ready to be read out loud, tweaked a little bit and declared finished. An inspiring speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, including a short but amusing Q&A, closed the day. Many ran to shake his hand or take a selfie, only a few succeeded. After a huge group photograph it was time to go back to the hotel.

A few days after the Youth Event, all of us back in our countries, we receive an email from Francesco Candelari, one of the incredibly professional AoC staff that accompanied us during the whole trip: our recommendations will in fact reach the desk of the Secretary General and will also be given to the Secretary General Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi. But bear in mind, thousands of recommendations are produced by the international community every year and not all of them can be properly followed up. Expect no miracles, is what he is stating politely. Even so, at the end of the day, it is not that important if our recommendations are actually taken into account. What matters is the chance of getting to know like-minded, brilliant people and, through talking to them, opening small windows into their worldviews, their cultures and hopes for the future. All the conversations I had during the three days of the Forum, however brief, have helped shape me into a better, more open and understanding person. I believe it felt the same to my fellow youth participants, and that is a very good step towards become a future leader, if it is the path of any of us to become one. After all, that is what the UNAoC Youth Event was truly all about.

Youths and their role in Project Inspire

As a joint initiative from the Singapore Committee for UN Women and MasterCard, Project Inspire was launched in 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. It aims to provide youths from the ages of eighteen to thirty-five the opportunity to work with non-profit organisations and compete for a US$25,000 grant to help create a better world for women and girls in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.

The grant is aimed towards the target beneficiaries of the winning proposal. In the past, other than the winner’s grant, selected teams have been chosen and granted additional grants due to the strength of their proposal. It’s not just about the best proposal winning, but about increasing awareness about the promotion of economic empowerment for women. These additional grants are funded by the judging panel or by interested members of the public. Thus is the impact of such an initiative, that it encourages the public to see through the implementation of feasible projects.

I first heard about the call for Project Inspire’s Country Ambassadors in one of the Singapore Committee for UN Women’s bulletins. The qualities needed to be a Country Ambassador are similar to some of those needed for participants of the project: drive to contribute positively to society and determination to build a long-term relationship that extends beyond the initial phase.

The bulk of my time as Singapore Country Ambassador lies in relationship management and public relations, driving awareness to youths, particularly those in local and international tertiary institutions. My aim in targeting these institutions is that these youths can form a proposal with like-minded individuals. I am pleased to note there has been great support from the management of these institutions. Many of them recognise the potential of youths, and are glad to lend their support to such an initiative that provides youths with the ability to promote economic empowerment for women.

The importance of youths is key not only to the development of Project Inspire, but also in ‘Womenomics’ and creating sustainable economic growth in developed and developing countries. This enables them to believe in their own voices, and to believe in their ability to influence key decision making steps and policy planning.

One of the Special Recognition Award winners of Project Inspire 2012 recently had the pleasure of knowing that most of their beneficiaries had created their own income from using the skills developed through their proposal (http://projinspire.com/bringing-sustainable-change-to-women-in-northern-sri-lanka/). Many of the Livelihood Initiatives for Empowerment of Women (LIFE) past beneficiaries in Northern Sri Lanka are now working full time at government managed farms. LIFE has now expanded its programme to include business management skills for future beneficiaries. The ability to transfer long-term knowledge on these women’s areas of expertise have led them to further become active producing, contributing members of their economy.

In the words of Singapore Committee for UN Women’s Project Development Coordinator Ms. Soha Yassine (http://projinspire.com/the-team/), Project Inspire “represents a sustainable solution for the world we want our children to inherit. The traditional model of non-profit NGOs has seen limited success in the past but the convergence of business and social good is a more realistic and exciting model for ending poverty, disease, and injustice in the future.”

Applications are open until 30 June 2014, after which the panel of judges will select the best proposals. Representatives from these teams will be mentored and flown to Singapore to give a formal presentation of their proposal. For more information of Project Inspire, please visit http://projinspire.com/.

Ambassador Hoffmann: “The younger generation must continue our battle towards a world without nuclear weapons”

Conference on Disarmament meets in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

Conference on Disarmament meets in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré.

In May 2013, before I finished my traineeship in Geneva, the German permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, Ambassador Hellmut Hoffmann, was generous enough to grant a moment out of his busy schedule for a video interview during which he shares his views on the inclusion of youth particularly in the disarmament processes at the UN. Continue reading

Wanted: fresh views and participation

UNYANET Representatives at Palais des Nations, Geneva, in May 2013

UNYANET Representatives at Palais des Nations, Geneva, in May 2013

Having followed various meetings on the field of disarmament at the UN in Geneva during the spring 2013, I was surprised by the amount of times that the youth and especially the need for fresh views at the UN were mentioned. The issue actually came up in more informal occasions but still within the official discussions of for example the Meeting of National Directors on Mine Action and a seminar on Military Spending organized by the International Peace Bureau. And even if I call the speakers vaguely by ”one speaker” or ”someone”, these people were influential personalities within Geneva disarmament context, which makes it even more impressive: These people take a moment from their super busy schedule to promote the inclusion of youth!

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News for the Youth

News for the Youth

UN Photo/Mark Garten

More and more, the UN tries to inform the youth by using social media and interactive tools. But does the target group get the news it is looking for through the new channels? A critical review of the current effort reveals quite diverse results.

In the past years, the United Nations started to use more and more social tools to inform the public, especially the youth, about its activities around the world. Twitter accounts and facebook pages were created. A page to download and use the official UN photos was established as well as various news and media pages. UN TV streams live from the conferences of the United Nations and UN Radio made its program available online while stopped broadcasting its program in a traditional sense. Finally, the United Nations established a Social Media Team that maintains at least some of the official United Nations social media accounts.

UNYANET created a survey to observe how and where the youth acquire their information and news about the UN. The survey revealed some patterns but the use of different channels still seems somewhat random especially when it comes to getting information on more specific topics than the basic knowledge on the UN.

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