10 September 2020
Young People are Deeply Multilateral: Virtual Plenary Looks to UN’s Next 75 Years
story highlights

UN officials were challenged to assess how well the UN is engaging with youth and representing young people’s views.

Youth advocates from around the world gave examples of the need for more responsive leadership, and the UN75 essay winner celebrated youth's "fearless optimism".

The UN75 Special Envoy reported results from the year-long global conversation on the future of the UN.

The UN75 Youth Plenary convened ahead of the UN’s high-level commemoration of its 75th anniversary. Youth advocates and UN officials exchanged views on making sure that in the UN’s next 75 years, young people are engaged in decision-making and their needs are embedded into future progress.

Held in an entirely virtual, global format on 9 September 2020, the Plenary began with a moderated conversation with youth representatives, the UN Secretary-General, the President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), and the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake. Wickramanayake emphasized links between multilateralism and action on the ground, when people are in need. She said her appreciation for multilateralism stems from her experience as a ninth-grader when a tsunami killed and displaced many in her home country of Sri Lanka. Following the disaster, Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General, visited shelters and aid operations.

The UN officials were challenged to assess how well the UN is engaging with youth and representing young people’s views. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said young people need to be at the heart of the next 75 years of the UN, but “we are far from making it true,” as many institutions still only talk to youth and do not yet listen. He said more youth participation is needed in decision-making mechanisms. Adil Skalli, World Federation of UN Associations (WFUNA), added that when youth do speak, it is important to listen, not to “send them to the kids’ room” to talk among themselves. Integration into decision-making is critical, he stressed.

UNGA President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande explained the need for a two-way relationship and intergenerational connection, rather than expecting youth to have all the answers and adults to implement them. Instead, he said “the answers come through interaction and engagement.”

Disability inclusion advocate Tobiloba Ajayi spoke from Nigeria and provided her view on this dynamic. She said people are “mandated to learn from our elders” in her part of the world, but elders should also learn to listen, so that the ingenuity of young people can be put together into solutions that work for everybody. Likewise, she said policies to protect persons with disabilities should be checked against real experiences, for example, avoiding the installation of too-steep wheelchair ramps. She called for using data to confirm that solutions meet people’s needs.

In a segment on youth leadership and activism, Obakeng Leseyane, education and youth activist from South Africa, said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown many problems to be deeply political. He said such problems cannot be fixed without a responsive government; being told to wash hands is unrealistic when people do not have enough clean water, he said. 

The Youth Plenary also included an appearance by Maisie Zheng, winner of the UN75 essay competition. Zheng said she “started writing with a very bleak mindset” about the possibility of a positive future. But, she realized, “people my age are unafraid to make change happen even when the world gives them little opportunity to do so.” She said they make their own opportunities because they “dare to believe a better future is possible.” She praised this “fearless optimism” that makes youth so powerful, and called on the UN to ensure that more young voices are heard in the future.

In a segment on results of the year-long “global conversation” on the role of the UN, Fabrizio Hochschild, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, said a half-million people have participated in the “global listening tour.” He reported that young people have much in common in terms of their aspirations and fears, and highlighted the following results:

  • Young people want less inequality, better access to basic services, more support for the hardest-hit areas, and more investment in youth and education.
  • Their biggest concerns are the destruction of the environment and inadequate responses to climate change. Health care is another major concern.
  • Young people’s proposed solutions “center on inclusion.” Youth have called for better social protection for most vulnerable, a fairer global economy, and for young people to play a much more meaningful role in decision making, beyond token events, and to have a stronger voice in the UN.

Finally, Hochschild said that more than any other age group, young people (90%) believe global cooperation is vital. “This does not surprise me at all,” he said; “young people are deeply multilateral.”

The high-level commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, on 21 September, will feature Heads of State and Government discussing the theme, ‘The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism’. They will adopt a declaration that was negotiated over the past few months. 

Among the commitments in the declaration are pledges to “listen to and work with youth.” The declaration reads that, “For too long, the voices of youth have been sidelined in discussions about their future. This has to change now through meaningful engagement with youth.” [UN75 Youth Plenary webpage] [UN75 Youth Plenary webcast]

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