Youth Take a Stand at the UN

youth at UNFrancis Dijibo is an Ogoni indigenous person from Nigeria. He left his village when he was 20 because the water from the only stream was no longer safe to drink and there were open gas flares burning 24 hours a day. Shell International was responsible for the pollution, but the village has received no compensation – there are no schools, no electricity and no hospitals.

When the villagers went to the company to complain, they were ignored. When they demonstrated, they were shot at, and 9 Ogoni people were hung. To look for an escape for himself and his people, Francis went to Gabon to meet with the UN Protection officer as the spokesman for the Ogoni. Francis has been seeking asylum from the UN for several years. "If you are not safe or you are attacked the most acceptable place to go is to the United Nations," says Francis "[In Nigeria] It is not a strange idea…"

Five years later, Francis is now in New York on invitation from Partnership for Indigenous Peoples Environment, a non-government association (NGO) that is affiliated with the United Nations. On a recent weekday Francis came to the UN in New York to speak on a youth panel discussing how to "Create a Culture of Peace." It was a small event. About 40 people, members of NGOs and a few medium-tier UN employees, attended the forum. Francis talked about what peace meant to him as a person from a war-torn country with youth from the American suburbs.

Although the discussion was a rich one, Francis says he feels his words might have had much more impact if more people had been there to hear them. And, he says, he has noticed a pattern. Like Francis, many of the youth who come to the UN community are there to represent large numbers of people, and to be the voices that cannot be represented by large governments. And, like Francis’, their voices are often pushed to the margins.

"How many times have young people participated in General Assembly Discussions?" he asks. "They should include everyone. If African youth are not involved, who will speak for [all the] people displaced by war?"


CONFERENCES


Be like a UN official and join the world conference extravaganza. This summer there are two world youth summits:
This August in Morocco, the World Congress of Youth will meet to focus on how young people can work to achieve sustainable development, as well as how young people can support the efforts of their countries in achieving the UN millennium goals. See www.maroc2003.org, or email contact@peachild.org.

Also in August, the Peaceways-Young General Assembly will meet in Romania (email peaceways@igc.org). The Young General Assembly has democratic meetings each year for its 86 member organizations in 53 countries involving over 1 million young people. Peaceways, headquartered in San Mateo, California, is for youth up to age 24, but only those under 18 can vote on their resolutions. Read what Peaceways said in their address to the World Conference on Sustainable Development in 2002:
"We examined thoroughly the causes for each of these issues and concluded the root causes are the desire for money (greed) and power, hatred and pride/revenge, education is not valued or funded enough, wealth is valued more than the environment and natural resources, there is widespread depression about the present and lack of hope about the future, too little value is placed on human life and labor, communication is not clear, there is a great lack of inner peace, and a widespread disallowance of child and youth participation."

DOCUMENTS

As for what you can use to lobby your own government, the General Assembly has adopted multiple resolutions on programs for youth (See the most recent resolution yourself, A/RES/56/117, on www.UN.org). These resolutions commit every UN member state to promoting youth participation in government, and reaffirm that resolutions and documents agreed upon at world conferences, like the World Programme of Action for Youth and the Dakar Framework for Action at the World Education Forum, will lead to action. Conference declarations and UN resolutions are meant to be used as tools by governments to develop goals and programs, but also can be used by citizens to hold their government accountable.
For example:
The World Programme of Action for Youth to the year 2000 and Beyond calls upon member states to "…include Youth Representatives in their national delegations to the General Assembly and other relevant United Nations meetings, thus enhancing and strengthening the channels of communication through the discussion of youth related issues, with a view to find solutions to the problems confronting youth in the contemporary world."
ACTIVISM

The NGO Committee on Youth has compiled a list of ways to get involved such as researching international issues like sustainable development, poverty eradication and the environment in school, taking courses in international relations and economics, visiting other countries, developing friendships with people from other cultures, and learning about how bills are passed in your own country, as well as about the process of laws and international convention in the UN.

As for action, the NGO youth committee suggests joining or starting a chapter of an NGO and working on issues they are following. For instance, Boy and Girl Scouts of America are NGOs with UN representation, and most religious denominations have NGO representatives at the UN in New York.

The committee advocates organizing petitions, such as Amnesty International's Urgent Actions, to be sent to government officials, as well as emailing, calling or writing government leaders. For example, you could get group of friends, your church youth group or lunch time club, to each call/write one leader on one issue agreed upon once a month. Also, look in to starting a model UN club at school, or volunteer or intern at a local NGO that works with UN or UN issues.
The UN usually defines youth as anyone between the ages of 15 and 24. Because, like Francis, many young people have lived through experiences as refugees, child soldiers, AIDS orphans and victims of human rights abuses, it makes sense that they can speak to these experiences directly. And many people feel that it is important that they have a chance to speak at the UN. But equally important, young people have contributions to make with new ideas, motivation and idealism.

When given the opportunity, many young people are rising to the occasion. For example, a youth manifesto has been a part of the Northern Ireland peace process; as part of the country rebuilding process in Afghanistan there was a conference for young people to plan a youth agenda for development, and there is an effort to involve youth that are former child soldiers in the peace process in Sierra Leone.

Last year, two children spoke at the UN Security Council about growing up in war, and young representatives at this summer’s World Summit on Sustainable Development made sure the importance of youth involvement and the consideration of children was added in the first paragraph of the conference declaration.

World Youth Conferences are also becoming more and more frequent.

In an impressive undertaking last September, 1,600 youth delegates from 120 countries met in Alexandria, Egypt for a Youth Employment Summit (www.youthemploymentsummit.org, to find out about ongoing projects). The summit was held to strategize solutions for what some consider the current world employment crisis: 1.3 billion people live on less than $1 a day, and by 2010 there will be 700 million young people hoping to enter the work force. The summit launched a "Decade Campaign of Action" with the goal that an additional 500 million young adults, especially youth facing poverty, will have "productive and sustainable livelihoods" (jobs) by the year 2012.

The important thing about conferences like this is the coalitions that can form between organizations and the documents the conferences produce. The challenge, however, is follow-through. Picture it: A Group of young people spend a week in a room together coming up with one statement that lists all their needs and obstacles, and then they all return to their own countries, schools, communities. Most youth are then not in positions to ensure that follow through happens within the governments where they live.

The conferences are significant, especially in theory, but questions come up: Is it worth bringing youth into the larger UN community, if they do not have the resources for a consistent presence at the UN? Further, how can youth participate at an international level if there are not sufficient channels to communicate with their governments in their own countries? Are youth participants at the UN just sitting at a "kid’s table" at the most important international dinners?

The General Assembly

As many people know, The General Assembly meetings are where most of the major decision-making within the UN takes place. The General Assembly is the only place where representatives from 191 countries are all given an equal opportunity to vote and pass resolutions.

Thirty years ago the UN General Assembly agreed that every country could have a youth delegate to the assembly. The number of youth delegates varies slightly every year but out of the 191, it tends to stay below 10. This year only six countries had a delegate, and, interestingly, five of them were from northern European countries -- Norway, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Australia. Although we can assume that these youth were concerned for youth worldwide, the delegates themselves admitted they could not adequately represent youth from places like Africa or Asia.

There is still a lot to learn from their six examples. Like in many European countries, the Netherlands has a national youth council. Through the Dutch National Youth Council, the government can easily support and consult with Dutch youth, and Dutch youth have an accessible link to make their voices heard at the national level. When the Dutch youth delegate, Leotinen Peeters (age 26), spoke to the UN Third Committee this October, she recommended that other governments adopt similar youth council structures.

"You Just Throw Out Your Business Card And Hope They Can Get In Touch With You"

The mechanism for including more youth in the country delegations is there, but member states are ambivalent to making the additions. Rebecca Jenkin (age 23), this year's Australian Youth Representative, says she believes that member states are "concerned about a loss of control or the impact that youth representatives may have on the mission’s already massive workload." But, she says, on the contrary, competent youth representatives can actually end up lightening the workload and providing expertise through their involvement with youth organizations back in their countries.

Mads-Erik Schionnemann (age 26), the youth delegate from Denmark, thinks that at the UN an entire "attitude adjustment is needed. Young people should not just be consulted, when it fits the budget, when it is politically attractive or when someone gets the idea. Young people and their democratic organizations should automatically be heard in the development of policies and programs that will develop the world, they are to grow up in."

Aside from the delegates and interns that only stay a few months, youth are fairly sparse at the UN. The UN and NGOs periodically fly in young representatives from around the world so different regions are represented, since, as Francis puts it, "Youth with the golden spoon cannot lead displaced youth."

A 13- year old from Bosnia that spoke at the Security Council last year is one example, and the NGO’s recruitment of Francis is another. Unfortunately, with the tightening security at U.S customs, U.S. visas are becoming more difficult to acquire and access to the UN in New York, (which is considered international territory) is becoming limited. Even Francis, who is legally visiting with an NGO, is unsure how long he will be able to stay in the U.S.

There are bodies in place that could have youth representatives permanently at the UN. The NGO Peaceways-Young General Assembly is run completely by and for youth. They represent over 1 million people, but can’t afford to keep someone at the UN all the time. Andrea Kominski (age 22), the volunteer Young-GA representative in New York, said "We have problems getting people under 18 in, and we are limited by how many people we can afford to fly here."

Kominski says she sees her networking work at the UN important, but she says it is hard to build on the information given at the UN meetings because "the tight schedule doesn’t encourage a culture of discussion. You just throw your business card out and hope they get in touch with you," she adds.

During the February meeting of the Commission on Social Development, 10 youth representatives from Lebanon to South Africa will form a caucus to discuss how youth involvement at the UN can be more comprehensive and consistent. The meeting should help to organize a fragmented movement, but there is still a long ways to go before there are youth representatives permanently at the UN.
UN speakersOnline, it’s a different story. There are hundreds of international youth organizations linked to the UN Youth Unit’s website http://www.un.org/youth. Organizations like Peaceways-Young General Assembly and Taking It Global, discuss everything from disarmament, AIDS, sustainable development and peace education. But the impacts these online communities can truly have, beyond empowering individuals and familiarizing them with the kinds of communication possible on the Internet, is still yet to be seen.

Like the "Culture of Peace" forum Francis spoke at, or the kickoff event for the 2003 as The Year of Freshwater where a children’s chorus sang, there are youth sporadically participating in UN forums. Occasionally young people, country delegates or others, address the UN plenary, but "there is still a lack of appreciation for the power of a young person’s voice," says Kominski.

Though the international youth movement is fragmented, its uneven momentum is gathering, and it will be up to youth themselves to determine -or demand- their influence. Like any international process, change is arduous and can take a long time. But besides being up to youth to ask, it is also up to world leaders to listen. As Leontien Peters from the Netherlands said when she addressed the delegations at a NGO/DPI conference in September, "Let youth share in the burden of responsibility for our world. By showing you have faith in us, we may continue to have faith in you."

Emily Freeburg, 22, is a writer who lives in New York and works for Franciscans International, an NGO with the UN.

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