Archive for July, 2011

GA President Joseph Deiss meets with Supermodel Alek Wek before the Meeting

To mark the completion of the International Year of the Youth, the United Nations in New York played host to a High Level Meeting on Youth from June 25-26. The meeting was a formal recognition of the increasingly important role young people –defined by the UN as aged 15-24- are playing in the political, economic and demographic fabric of countries. Speaking at the General Assembly, Nigerian Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin from the United Nations Population Fund reaffirmed this, “soon more than a third of the world’s population will be young people, 90% in the developing world”.

Are governments to view this as a challenge or an opportunity? According to Ambassador Zinzou of Benin young people are an agent for change. “Their sensitivity, capacity to mobilize, idealism and willingness to take greater risk renders them a great agent of change for all societies”, he proclaimed. In the wake of the Arab Spring, in which uprisings were catalysed by the younger generations, young people have presented themselves as a challenge to government’s who would deny their human rights but an asset to humanitarian development across the globe. The Tunisian representative, whose country saw protests in 2010 that led to the ousting of the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, named the country’s youth as “our biggest asset”. The globe has penned its future securely on its young population.

Despite the lauded potential of the world’s youth, the inability to access resources or opportunities to effect change in many countries has left young people blunted in their potential. This has also manifested into widespread incidents of youth unemployment, in Honduras four out of five the unemployed are young people and, according to UNICEF, 81 million young people were unemployed worldwide in 2009. Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe suggested the issue was more prevalent in developed countries. “Young people in developing countries are as talented, entrepreneurial and creative as their counterparts in the developed world but lack the necessary resources” he declared.

A contributor to the problem, suggested the Honduran representative, is government’s detached perception of youth. “We must all vanquish that age old cliché that ‘our youth will be the future’, not just the future but the present belongs to the youth”, he urged. This corresponds to a lack of involvement and representation for young people in political decision-making, a factor identified by the Indonesian representative amongst others. “We need to move on from youth policy to youth engagement and involve youths in decision-making,” he recommended. UN spokeswoman Monique Coleman added her personal opinion, “the greatest challenge to youth development is all of us to take young people seriously.”

The voting age of countries is not necessarily the issue; the majority of countries allow 18-year-olds to vote, including India where 74% of the population are under-35. It is in the higher reaches of policy-making where young people are under-represented, especially considering the majority of policies will affect their futures primarily.

Norwegian delegates at the meeting

Delivering his speech in sign language, the Swedish Youth Delegate regretted there were so few young people representing youth. Honduras would be quick to point out their 26-year-old minister who took the podium, but he was an exception and not a representation. In Sri Lanka, a youth parliament has recently been set up with 335 members representing all ethnic groups, however it is unclear how much power this body has in policy-making. The representative from Switzerland argued that the inclusion of young people in politics gifts governments the asset of a unique opinion. “Young people may not be right at all times but a society that gives them an opportunity may not be wrong at all times” he pointed out.

At the moment 18% of the world is aged 15-24 and this number will grow in the future. Future generations will be forced to confront the globe’s issues, some of which have been delicately ignored by current governments. Countries who invest in this influential body now will place their nation’s future in far better hands. As the representative for Benin puts it, “the 21st century will be the century of human capital, as embodied in young people.” Rather than praise young people for their potential, governments should act upon these words by inviting them to play a part in decision-making. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself attests, “increasingly young people are saying to their elders and governments, this is not the world we want.”


The UN Security Council Meeting

Leaders from 38 UN member nations met today at the United Nations Security Council to pass a new resolution aimed at protecting schools and hospitals during times of conflict. The resolution identifies these buildings as safe havens for children and will add to the UN’s yearly ‘list of shame’ any parties that target schools or hospitals.

UNICEF was pleased at the decision because schools and hospitals are areas to shelter children and provide safety from conflict happening around them. They also play a big role in a child’s development and access to healthcare and education are among the basic rights of children.

Speaking at the council, Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director, welcomed the resolution, “adding attacks on schools and hospitals as a trigger for listing parties will heighten awareness of these grave violations and the terrible impact they have on the lives of children”.

Protecting schools and hospitals has become an important issue after recent reports revealed armed forces in at least 31 countries were targeting these buildings and the people inside them.  In Afghanistan, there were over 1,100 attacks on education targets between 2006 and 2008. Children were afraid to go to school and hundreds of schools had to be closed for safety. Israel’s representative at the Security Council spoke of how his three children growing up in Jerusalem had to get used to the sight of an armed guard outside their kindergarten.

Attacking these important community buildings has more effects than just destroying the walls and killings or injuring people inside them. If children and teachers are frightened of going to school or doctors fearful of working in a hospital because of a possible attack then it means the schools and hospitals must be closed. Over the past six months in Southern Israel, over 100,000 children have not gone to schools through fear of terrorist attacks.

Without classes, children could miss out on education and an opportunity to improve their circumstances. No hospitals mean that people with illnesses or injuries cannot be looked after. By identifying and punishing armed groups who attack these vital services, the UN is hoping to protect schools and hospitals, but most importantly children’s lives, for the future.

The meeting also addressed the wider issue of children who are affected by armed conflict. In 2008, UNICEF estimated that over 250,000 children were used in armed forces and millions have been killed or injured during conflict. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivered a stern message of support that the United Nations was fully committed to protecting children in armed conflict.

UNICEF has been involved in monitoring and reporting armed forces that violate children’s rights in conflict. Besides creating reports, UNICEF also teams up with local groups to remove children from the ranks of armed forces and help reintegrate them into local communities afterwards. Last year, UNICEF worked with the government in Afghanistan to re-open 256 schools.

There were positives to take out of the Security Meeting, the USA representative Susan Rice stated that so far in 2011 6,300 children had been released from armed conflict. However, the overall tone was one of marked caution. Liechtenstein pointed out that 16 conflict parties in the UN shame report have violated children’s rights for five or more consecutive years. Bangladesh, meanwhile, called upon the 50 UN member states that had not yet declared their support for children in armed conflict to act.

It was clear to all involved that the next steps for the UN would be concrete actions to ensure the resolution does not simply become a scrap of paper.

Tony Lake concluded his speech: “Let us never forget, human rights are not an end in themselves; the lives of people, of children, are our purpose. Rights are a context for upholding human dignity and for creating conditions for human progress. It is the practical steps we take to protect these rights- and the impact of our actions –that change the world.”