Speakers Spotlight Role of Youth in Advancing Peace, Climate Action, Development
With more than 19,000 participants joining virtually over its two-day session, the 2021 Economic and Social Council Youth Forum concluded today as the largest and most diverse gathering of young people in the United Nations history, amid calls to retain useful pandemic-era tools while addressing the structural inequities that have long held youth back from achieving their full potential.
Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, said in closing remarks that the session’s unprecedented number of participants logged in from 190 countries and engaged via the Forum’s chat box and social media channels. Over 60 high-level Government representatives and countless other stakeholders also took part. Underlining the need for intergenerational cooperation to recover from both the COVID-19 pandemic and the mistakes of the past, she spotlighted the importance of ensuring young people’s safety, investing in education, green jobs and renewable energy, delivering youth-led climate solutions and working to rebuild young people’s trust in institutions.
As the Forum concluded its ministerial round table on the theme “Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals with and for Youth”, Government leaders joined civil society activists and a range of youth representatives to weigh progress and gaps in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s 17 Goals, especially those related to partnerships, climate action and peace, justice and strong institutions. Many speakers stressed the far-reaching scope of the climate crisis, highlighting young people’s leadership in historic climate strikes around the globe. Others focused on young people’s increasingly prominent role in driving forward the world’s peace, justice and reconciliation initiatives, stressing that they are the ones who will inherit responsibility for the peace agreements currently being signed.
Aseel Soboh, a 17-year-old Student Parliamentarian representing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that while Sustainable Development Goal 17 on partnerships is the glue that holds all the other Goals together, “young people can be the glue of society”. They have the ability to connect the old and the new, and contribute ideas and energy. Pointing out that 90 per cent of the world’s young people live in developing countries, she insisted that they cannot be left behind. “COVID-19 gave the world a huge lesson in how everyone matters,” and how everyone across the globe is connected, she said.
Davis Reuben, of the organization Friday’s for Future Uganda, said tackling climate change is a prerequisite for achieving all the other Sustainable Development Goals and targets. In Uganda, the climate crisis is a daily reality, as people face constant floods, landslides and droughts. Advocating for a clean energy transition tool to bring about net-zero carbon emissions, he said such a shift must be made affordable to all. “There is a crying need for system change that must be addressed,” he stressed, urging leaders to “get out of their comfort zones”. Noting that the countries most affected are those least responsible for climate change itself, he insisted that youth, women and others who are disproportionately impacted must be the table for all decisions made on those critical issues.
During an interactive dialogue session on the theme “Reflecting Back and Looking Forward: Celebrating a Decade of the Youth Forum and the start of the Decade of Action”, three youth panellists joined senior United Nations officials in conversation about the history of the Forum and its unique 2021 format. They drew on their own work and experiences, including during the pandemic, and made recommendations to the United Nations as it continues to expand its critical work with young people.
Abdullah Al-Khafajy, Liaison Officer for Medical Education Issues at the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations and a medical student from Iraq, said several opportunities for positive changes in youth engagement — especially in education — exist as the world emerges from the pandemic. The past year has given young people a chance to reassess the value of their educational curricula and the quality of their engagement. While the digital divide remains a critical challenge, emerging education technologies and new start-up companies have been able to bridge many of the gaps that existed in the pre-COVID-19 world. He expressed his hope that they will be combined with in-person learning and structural changes in the future.
Amina Mohammed, United Nations Deputy Secretary‐General, told the youth panellists: “You are bringing innovation, you are raising awareness and you are driving change.” Emphasizing that young leaders have a unique ability to hold older decision-makers to account, she said that rather than just “ticking a box”, adults must work to reverse systemic restrictions on youth assembly and youth action. She agreed that a holistic approach is needed to bring young people to the table more regularly, that climate and development targets should be integrated into education curricula early and often and that Governments should embark on a broad re-investment in their young people.
The Forum also convened a virtual interactive session on the theme “Leaving no youth behind: Addressing the long-term consequences of COVID-19 for vulnerable youth groups”, which featured remarks by Derrick León Washington, United Nations Human Rights Minority Fellow, and Elliott Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, among others.
Ministerial Round Table
This afternoon, the Forum took up the second part of its 7 April Ministerial Round Table on the theme “Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals with and for Youth”. Moderated by Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, it featured statements by Ministers and other Government officials, as well as youth leaders, and focused on the implementation of Goal 13 on climate action; Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions; and Goal 17 on partnerships.
Many of the session’s speakers underscored the far-reaching scope of the climate crisis, highlighting young people’s leadership in massive climate strikes around the world and emphasizing that the planet’s survival underpins all the other Sustainable Development Goals. Others focused on young people’s increasingly prominent role in driving forward the world’s peace, justice and reconciliation initiatives, stressing that they are the ones who will inherit responsibility for the peace agreements currently being signed. Some spotlighted the adoption of Security Council resolution 2250 (2015) on youth, peace and security as a turning point for youth engagement in international relations and geopolitics.
Dag-Inge Ulstein, Minister for International Development of Norway, pointed out that besides causing numerous domestic challenges COVID-19 has also fuelled significant geopolitical friction. As young people are disproportionately affected by conflict and crisis, they should play a crucial role in preventing it and building sustainable peace. Emphasizing that Norway recognizes the vulnerability of youth in crisis situations and works to contribute to their protection, including during its current term on the Security Council, he called for more meaningful dialogue and partnerships between young people and other stakeholders.
Mohammad Salameh Nabulsi, Minister for Youth of Jordan, recalled that his country was instrumental in drafting Council resolution 2250 (2015), which redefined the role of youth in helping to maintain international peace and security. In Jordan’s neighbourhood, the Middle East, the most critical underlying conflict remains that between Israelis and Palestinians. Emphasizing that the only way it will be resolved is through a negotiated solution leading to a sovereign, independent and democratically governed Palestinian State in line with United Nations resolutions, he went on to spotlight Jordan’s recent challenges in obtaining COVID-19 vaccines. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, global equity and justice among nations are needed now more than ever, he stressed.
Aseel Soboh, Student Parliamentarian representing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), described herself as a 17-year-old Palestine refugee from Lebanon and a student at an UNRWA-operated school. Citing partnerships under Sustainable Development Goal 17 as the glue that holds together the successful implementation of all the other Goals — including those on peace and justice — she stressed that “young people can be the glue of society” as they are able to connect the old and the new, and contribute ideas and energy. Pointing out that 90 per cent of the world’s young people live in developing countries, she insisted that they cannot be left behind. “COVID-19 gave the world a huge lesson in how everyone matters,” and how everyone across the globe is connected, she said.
Striking a similar tone, Yousif Adam Aday, Minister for Youth and Sports of Sudan, said today he represents a “new Sudan” in which men and women, young and old, have worked together to put an end to an atrocious and longstanding dictatorship. Emphasizing that Sudanese youth are making their voices heard, including in policymaking and the design of new laws, he said their participation has been enshrined through such structures as the Sudan Youth Parliament.
Sandra Skiaker, of the Norwegian Children and Youth Council, agreed that youth must be drivers of peace, justice and inclusion as they are the ones who will assume future responsibility of the agreements currently being signed. Calling for more efforts to implement Council resolution 2250 (2015) on youth, peace and security, she went on to point out that the COVID-19 pandemic forced more than 1.6 billion youth out of school over the past year, many of whom will never return. The pandemic also inflicts a heavy toll on young workers, ending their employment and impairing their career prospects, and is closely linked to the Earth’s climate crisis, nature crisis and pollution and waste crisis. Against that backdrop, she urged decision-makers to scale up their nationally determined contributions on climate change while focusing on adaptation and ensuring that the COVID-19 recovery is sustainable, equitable and green.
Among other speakers who focused on the urgent climate crisis was Davis Reuben, of the organization Friday’s for Future Uganda, who said tackling climate change is a prerequisite for achieving all the other Sustainable Development Goals. In his country, Uganda, the climate crisis is a daily reality, as people face constant floods, landslides and droughts. Advocating for a clean energy transition as a tool to bring about net-zero carbon emissions, he said such a shift must be made affordable to all. “There is a crying need for system change that must be addressed,” he stressed, urging leaders to “get out of their comfort zones”. Noting that the countries most affected are those least responsible for climate change itself, he insisted that youth, women and others who are disproportionately impacted be at the table for all decisions made on those critical issues.
Other delegates focused on Goal 17 on partnerships, or spotlighted national and international structures designed to enshrine youth engagement in decision-making. Othman A. Almoamar, Chair of the 2020 Youth Engagement Group to the Group of 20 (G20), known as “Y20”, said he experienced first-hand the effect of the pandemic on youth representation in global fora, as well as they “exponential need” for their voice to be heard at decision-making tables. The crisis has not only exacerbated challenges for youth, but also increased the uncertainty in their futures. “While our advocacy to the G20 was successful, it is not enough,” he said, emphasizing that young people under 30 — who make up half the world’s population — remain among the most vulnerable in the pandemic era.
Benjamin Dalle, Flemish Minister for Brussels Affairs, Youth and Media of Belgium, prior to giving the floor to a Belgian youth delegate, aligned himself with the European Union and said his country’s three communities have a longstanding tradition of youth participation and partnerships. Young people have shown that they are active and engaged, even in crisis situations, and can be agents of change. By structurally anchoring youth participation in all policy areas of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, young people can have a greater and more direct impact on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. He agreed with other speakers that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the importance of intergenerational partnerships, citing Belgium’s National Commission for the Rights of the Child and the Flemish Youth and Children's Rights Policy Plan as examples of positive engagement.
Oriane Schmidt, Youth Delegate from Belgium, presented the work of her country’s youth delegate cohort, including efforts to bring the Sustainable Development Goals closer to children and youth through education, social media platforms and concrete, youth-led projects. Listing several examples, she cited the group’s engagement with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and its work to implement Goal 13 on climate change and Goals 12, 13 and 15 on sustainable food systems. While COVID-19 disrupted every aspect of human life, disproportionately affecting young people, it didn’t affect their engagement. “Young people are agents of change and deserve a seat at the table,” she stressed.
Fabiana Dadone, Minister for Youth Policies of Italy, said the pandemic has dramatically reduced young people’s access to rights and basic services, all while increasing inequality. Noting that participation is the main objective of the European Youth Strategy (2019-2027), with which Italy’s own youth policies are aligned, she said the country created ad hoc youth participation spaces as part of its current presidency of the G20 and its co-presidency of the 26th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26). The Y20 Summit, to be held in Milan in July, will allow young people to entrust G20 leaders with their recommendations on sustainability, climate change, innovation, digitization and inclusion. In addition, she said, 400 young people from 197 countries will have the chance to draw up concrete proposals ahead of COP26 in November.
Ahmed Mahloof, Minister for Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment of Maldives, said COVID-19 has disrupted the livelihoods of thousands of young people, especially those employed in tourism and related sectors. “They are currently navigating the loss of income, access to health care, social isolation and exclusion, with disruptions to education and training,” he said, adding that the current challenges threaten to unravel the progress made towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In response to the crisis, his Government launched a relief package worth 2.9 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which includes financing facilities for businesses and households in the tourism and fisheries sectors as well as social protection for vulnerable communities. In addition, it is drafting a youth bill to promote and protect young people's rights, including expanding access to health care, employment and economic opportunities, education and representation in decision-making.
Andrea Jamile Ruiz De la Mora, Youth Delegate from Mexico, said the Economic and Social Council’s annual Youth Forum remains a “global benchmark for bringing young people from all over the world together”. Describing youth as people with rights and agents of change, she said the Forum is a model for youth participation structures, and participants must continue to advocate for the prominent engagement of young people in decision-making structures in all countries.
Also participating were ministers, senior Government officials, civil society representatives and youth delegates from the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Qatar, Suriname, Egypt, Peru, Costa Rica and Mexico (in his ministerial capacity).
Next, the Forum convened a virtual interactive session on the theme “Leaving no youth behind: addressing the long-term consequences of COVID-19 for vulnerable youth groups”. Moderated by Derrick León Washington, United Nations Human Rights Minority Fellow, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), it featured stage-setting remarks by Elliott Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
Mr. WASHINGTON, acknowledging that Headquarters is situated on Lenape territory, said that the arch of the moral universe is long and that some of that today’s participants are bending. Sadly, not all the panellist could be in New York, but happily, the dialogue — with its focus on intersectionality — will present a diversity of voices from all over the world.
Mr. HARRIS said that the United Nations family is painfully aware that a large proportion of the world’s young people face multiple vulnerabilities. That complex reality, however, often goes unseen, undocumented and unaddressed — and it has been compounded by the pandemic, pushing youth further away from opportunities and well-rounded development. The Organization needs to do a better job of not only addressing different vulnerabilities, but also how those vulnerabilities intersect with each other. He hoped that today’s discussions will contribute to intergenerational dialogue in addition to concrete commitments to build back better.
Angelica Ojinnaka, a youth advocate and researcher from Australia, said that the pre-pandemic world had already failed young women with intersecting identities. COVID-19 prompted even more economic and social disruption, leaving young people like her stuck in a maze of worries and evaporating hopes. Persons with intersectional identities engage in local initiatives, but strategies implemented to engage them lack commitment. Nevertheless, her lived experience continues to drive her forward. She went on to say that young people are beyond having a seat at the table. They have designed their own tables and it is time for Governments and other stakeholders to sit at those tables.
Nujeen Mustafa, a disability and refugee rights activist from Syria now living in Germany, said that intersectionality has been part of her life since she was born. “I was not important enough” in a variety of ways, she said, noting for instance how a refugee camp where she once lived had no sanitary facilities accessible for persons with disabilities. Young people with disabilities are interested in a wide range of issues and they have much to offer, yet their potential remains unfulfilled because they are still fighting for rights that others take for granted. She added that for the first time since its inception, the Forum is today hearing from a young person with disabilities. Young people like her are not a liability, but an asset in the quest to make a better world.
Tushar Kanti Baidya, an educator, peacemaker, and human rights activist from Bangladesh, said that when his country first went into lockdown in March 2020, its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community mobilized within a day to distribute relief supplies to marginalized and vulnerable group. It took the Government a fortnight to do likewise, he said, adding: “We were thinking, ‘Who should be in a position of power and preparedness’.” He noted, however, that it was difficult to assist many transgendered persons who are reluctant to use mobile phones and mobile financial services due to privacy concerns. Discussing the situation in other countries, he said that in Indonesia, transgendered persons were denied access to food due to a lack of identity documents. In the Philippines, gays were harassed and blamed for spreading the coronavirus. In the Republic of Korea, one man was vilified on social media because he was exposed as both gay and COVID-19 positive.
Alba Verónica Yacabalquiej, a young indigenous Maya K’iche woman from Guatemala, said that the pandemic laid bare the problems faced by indigenous people in terms of poverty, education and health care. Schooling may have shifted online, but many communities still lack electricity or an Internet connection. Many young people decided to migrate to the United States to find work and support their families, only to find themselves blocked in Mexico. Returning to Guatemala, they were stigmatized and accused of spreading the coronavirus. On the other hand, she said that the pandemic has prompted a renewed interest among indigenous youth in traditional and ancestral languages and culture. Moreover, many non-indigenous youth who are studying biochemistry are looking into the medicinal properties of indigenous and ancestral crops. She went on to express deep concern about climate change, its impact on indigenous agriculture and attempts by multinational corporations to acquire indigenous lands.
Lynda Romdhane, a gender equality activist, researcher in criminal law and criminal science, and representative of the international Shedecides movement in Tunisia, said that her work in legal clinics opened her eyes to the impact that patriarchy has had on her life and sexuality. Through her involvement in feminist groups, she also discovered how much women have suffered from discrimination. It is no longer enough to change oneself and loved ones; instead, the goal is to change society, she said, declaring: “Now I can say that I believe in the rights that I defend”. She underscored the impact that the pandemic has had on gender-based economic inequality in Tunisia, particularly in rural areas, and how it has aggravated domestic violence.
Fiona McCluney, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Albania, summarized the various ways in which the Organization is promoting youth engagement in that country, such as a joint programme to establish 15 municipal-level youth advisory groups. It is also participating in the development and implementation of a national youth action plan.
Clement Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, emphasized the role of youth in protest movements in Myanmar, Algeria and other parts of the world. Through their collective force, young people are leading change, driving innovation for social justice and using technology to achieve their goals. The 2030 Agenda will not be achieved if youth are left behind, he said, urging Governments to ensure that the voice of young people is heard as nations build back better from the pandemic. He added that he views consultation with young people as a key part of his mandate, with his reports to the Human Rights Council mirroring how they see the future in their respective countries.
Interactive Dialogue II
The Forum then convened an interactive dialogue session on the theme “Reflecting Back and Looking Forward: Celebrating a Decade of the Youth Forum and the start of the Decade of Action”. It featured conversations between five panellists: Amina Mohammed, United Nations Deputy Secretary‐General; Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth; Dilan Ezgi Koç, United Nations Youth Champion for Disarmament; Abdullah Al-Khafajy, Liaison Officer for Medical Education Issues at the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations; and Mariana Vasconcelos, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the company Agrosmart.
The session opened with an introductory video and a pre-recorded conversation between the three youth panellists on how science, policy and the arts can help galvanize action and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Ms. KOÇ shared how she uses music to bring disparate groups together and advocate for the Goals in her native Turkey. Mr. AL-KHAFAJY, addressing the question from a medical perspective, pointed out that climate change is expected to result in up to 250,000 deaths by 2030, and said the Sustainable Development Goals should be introduced to children in their earliest years to improve their engagement. Ms. VASCONCELOS agreed that sustainability, along with technology and entrepreneurship, should be part of early childhood education curricula. The speakers also discussed their recommendations for the United Nations system and national Governments, underlining the need to eradicate tokenism in youth engagement.
Ms. MOHAMMED said that, a decade after the Youth Forum’s inception, its discussions have become even more robust. “You are bringing innovation, you are raising awareness and you are driving change,” she said, adding that young leaders are also able to hold older decision-makers to account. Rather than just “ticking a box”, adult leaders must work to reverse systemic restrictions on youth assembly and youth action. Emphasizing that everyone can see themselves in the Sustainable Development Goals, she agreed with the youth panellists that a holistic approach is needed and that climate and development targets should be integrated into education much more broadly. She also noted that education has been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, echoed calls for a broad re-investment in young people and posed several questions to the youth panellists.
Mr. AL-KHAFAJY, responding to a question about what opportunities exist for positive changes in education as the world emerged from the pandemic, said the past year has provided a chance for young people to reevaluate the value of their educational curricula and the quality of their engagement. Over the course of the year, emerging education technology and start-up companies have been able to mitigate many of the gaps that existed in the pre-COVID-19 world, he added, expressing his hope that they will be combined with in-person learning in the future.
Ms. KOÇ agreed, while outlining the specific challenges faced by musicians such as herself, and by other artists, amid the pandemic. Over the past year, she recorded a piece for a United Nations podcast about disarmament, began to make plans to create a global orchestra to raise awareness on disarmament and enhanced her relationship with fellow artists through virtual tools, she said. Meanwhile, Ms. VASCONCELOS pointed out that 2020 saw global supply chains and food systems stretched and strained by the pandemic. It also presented new opportunities as systems learned to adapt and as the needs for better data and more sustainability were laid bare.
LIU ZHENMIN, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said that while the Forum was unable to meet in person this year, the level of engagement was remarkably high. Thanking all youth participants, he said that “the United Nations wants to hear from you” and that without their engagement going forward, efforts to build a sustainable world will be in vain. The forthcoming World Youth Report, produced by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, will identify gaps in mental health services for young people, especially the most vulnerable, and policy recommendations will be shared with Governments and others for implementation. “Change is happening right now and you are leading that change,” he said, adding that youth engagement must be strengthened as part of a wider reinvigoration of multilateralism.
MELATI WIJSEN and ISABEL WIJSEN, founders of Bye Bye Plastic Bags and YouthTopia, speaking from Bali, Indonesia, in a joint statement and accompanying video, said that the world is changing fast, but at the same time, change is happening slowly. Young people know that they need to stand up and see greater commitment from those in power. “No more empty promises; we need action,” they said, adding that since they founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags in 2013, when they were aged 10 and 12, to combat the proliferation of plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam in Bali, they have learned that creating change requires courage, persistence, grit and community. With a clear vision, young people are fast thinkers and action-driven to turn a linear system into a circular one. Kids make up 25 per cent of the world’s population, but they are 100 per cent its future, they added.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE said that more than 19,000 people from 190 countries joined the Forum in its virtual format this year, making it the largest and most inclusive and diverse gathering of young people ever at the United Nations. She also acknowledged the participation of over 60 high-level Government representatives and countless other stakeholders. Going forward, the new normal should look like the one that young people dream about, she said, stressing the need for intergenerational cooperation to recover from the mistakes of the past. Setting out a list of recommendations based on the Forum’s discussions, she emphasized the importance of building strong relationships with youth and to rebuild their trust in institutions. In exercising their rights, the safety of young people must be ensured. Bold investments must also be made in education, green jobs, renewable energy, safe digital transformation and youth-led climate action solutions.
MUNIR AKRAM (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, said the past two days have been like a breath of fresh air at the United Nations, with the voices and vision of young people from around the world being heard on a wide range of vital issues, from inclusive recovery and achieving the Goals to removing inequalities of wealth, gender, race, religion and origin, with the aim of building a system of human interaction by promoting inclusiveness and peace. Going forward, the United Nations will intensify its engagement with youth, he added.