Youth and the United Nations


January 23, 2019
Youth and the United Nations
Ally Dunhill
Ally Dunhill Non-Resident Fellow in Rights Education
Emina Osmandzikovic
Emina Osmandzikovic Researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory

Youth is defined by the United Nations (UN) as the age group between 15 and 24 years old and makeup 1.2 billion people or one quarter of the world’s population. Regardless of their socio-economic background or geopolitical circumstances, young people across the globe want to contribute to the creation and maintenance of a more sustainable and secure future and they have been contributing for many decades. Now, more than ever before, the meaningful participation of youth in the creation of strategies and implementation of sustainable peace practices is needed and has finally been internationally recognized. In September 2018, the United Nations launched its strategy on youth, Youth Strategy 2030: Working with and for Young People.  This strategy combines recognition and meaningful participation of youth and opens the door for their substantive contribution to sustainable peace. The Youth Strategy should be read by the global public as a holistic document as it aligns well to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and includes core UN issues, such as: sustainable peace; climate change; poverty alleviation; fighting diseases, and; literacy.

At its core, the UN Youth Strategy sets an authoritative foundation for ensuring the inclusion of youth in all debates about achieving a better future for the world. The UN Youth Strategy not only includes youth but also supports their role as active agents of change and equal partners in decision-making processes; giving them shared responsibility. In order for young people to participate in decision-making, they need to secure the recognition of their partnership capabilities from the very beginning. Although the UN Youth Strategy lacks concrete suggestions on ways of moving forward in the promotion of agency of young people, it should be commended for its precedent-setting tone in officially and formally recognizing the value of young people in ‘making sure that every young person is empowered to achieve full potential’.

The ownership of the UN Youth Strategy is equally shared by all members of the UN system at the global, regional and national levels.  The Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth will be the public face of the UN Youth Strategy and will lead global advocacy efforts. The creation of the Strategy aims to set the foundation for a new level of engagement between youth and the UN by building ‘agency and advancing the rights of young people’, for a more inclusive and safer future. The impact and legacy of the strategy has to be examined through the historical lens of the relationship between the UN and youth, which sets the tone for the Strategy’s recommendations.

History of Youth at the UN

Historically, the UN has recognised young people and the important part they play in their societies. As early as 1965 the General Assembly endorsed the Declaration on the Promotion among Youth of the Ideals of Peace, Mutual Respect and Understanding between Peoples in Resolution 2037. This resolution was the first to encourage national and international youth organisations to work with the UN to promote their work, particularly in their work on peace, security and upholding human rights around the world. This resolution encouraged youth organisations to support and contribute to the dissemination of these ideals. In addition, from 1965 to 1975, both the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council promoted and encouraged three basic themes in the field of youth: participation, development and peace. Alongside this, the General Assembly asks Governments, non-governmental organizations and youth movements to work with the UN on an international policy on youth.

Youth was becoming a key focus of the UN and, to ensure this momentum continued, in 1979, the General Assembly, passed Resolution 34/151 which stated that 1985 was to be the first International Youth Year, with the theme “Participation, Development, Peace.” Additionally, the General Assembly extended its remit in working in partnership with youth by passing Resolution 40/14 in 1985, which focused on acknowledging that there is not one homogenous group of youth. To that extent, they recommended that young people should be seen as a broad category including young people with disabilities, young women and young people living in rural and urban areas. In other words, the message that needed to come across was that no young people should be marginalized.

In 1995, the tenth anniversary of International Youth Year, the UN further established and enhanced its responsibility and pledge to young people by adopting the World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY). This programme contained ten priority areas. These were: education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities, girls and young women, and full and effective participation of youth in the life of society and in decision-making. The aim of this programme was to look for more effective and productive ways to support young people to participate in their societies. WPAY was a milestone, given that it established a call for encouraging and supporting young people to participate in their respective societies. Over the years, the UN was paying attention to the subject of youth but this could only be described as basic acknowledgement of youth.

In 2000, the International Youth Year changed its name to the International Year of Youth and each subsequent International Year of Youth began with an International Youth Day, to be held on 12 August. The idea for International Youth Day was recommended by a group of young people who attended the first session of the World Youth Forum of the United Nations System, in Austria in 1991. On this date every year, the Member States were expected to promote awareness of the World Programme of Action for Youth, through acknowledging and celebrating the potential of young people and how they are supporting youth. Each year has a different focus. In 2001, the focus was on “Health and Unemployment;” 2006 – “Tackling Poverty Together: Young People and the Eradication of Poverty.” In 2017, the topic was “Youth Building Peace” and was a timely topic to focus on as in 2015, the UN Security Council had unanimously adopted Resolution 2250. The resolution strongly encouraged States to consider setting up mechanisms that would enable young people to participate meaningfully as peacebuilder to prevent violence and generate peace around the world. This was the first resolution fully dedicated to the vital and positive role of young people in promoting international peace and security. This Resolution clearly positions youth as important partners in the global efforts of the UN and draws attention to the potential of youth as partners in today’s global society.

In 2018, the UN took another step to encourage States to involve young people in decision-making processes with the new UN Resolution 2419 (2018). The resolution reaffirms the commitment by the Member States, to the full implementation of Resolution 2250 (2015) on Youth, Peace and Security (YPS). Resolution 2419, which all UN Member States, adopted calls for increasing the role of young people in negotiating and implementing peace agreements. In recognising the role young people can play in preventing violence and generating peace, this Resolution calls for all the Member States to take young people’s views into account in all peace and security decisions. These developments culminated in the September 2018 launch of the new Youth Strategy.

Going forward and next steps

Given the UN’s long history of interest in youth on various issues related to peace, security and sustainable development, among others, we need to understand the UN Youth Strategy 2030 as a body of work that consolidates youth in the official programming and development structures. Although the Strategy itself does not refer to the historically significant youth initiatives that have been devised by the UN, the core pillars of the document represent these initiatives in a forward-looking mode.

The aim of the UN’s engagement with youth has been to look for more effective and productive ways to support young people to participate in their societies, which is addressed in the recommendations of the Strategy. There are certain aspects of the Strategy, however, that need a more rigorous examination in order to better understand how they align with the role of the youth in sustainable peace and development.

The Youth Strategy document does not mention any of the previous or upcoming youth engagement opportunities, such as the International Year of the Youth, which indicates that the Strategy document was not written for a reader who is new to the UN. In other words, the document assumes that the reader has previous knowledge. Although the document cannot include every example, some concrete examples of engagement that could have been included, are various UN summits, such as the HLPF, Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, and the 75th anniversary of the UN in 2020.

The document’s greatest contribution could be to unify and streamline the role of youth in sustainable development. However, the document also shows little sense of the diversity of approaches or a context/region-specific approach to issues that different youth face around the world. In other words, there is nothing substantively new that this document contributes with to the new and emerging debates on increased youth engagement towards a better (more sustainable) future.

Another key issue that arises is the lack of substantiation behind complex ideas. The strategy with and for youth provides no referral to existing UN documents, which makes it difficult to understand for its diverse audience – as it states in the title, for youth. One example is “intercultural and interreligious dialogue” on page 13 that is not directly connected to any of the previous points within the document and no clear link between the role of youth and the enhancement of intercultural/interreligious dialogue is set forth. Perhaps the document was overly ambitious in covering all the topics that youth ought to be equal partners in. For that reason, we look forward to the UN further providing substantive explanations and relevant sources for umbrella concepts that are of direct relevance to the Youth Strategy, especially the Plan of Action.

It goes without saying that, by devising the Youth Strategy, the UN has put itself in the position of a responsible body for coordinating the meaningful involvement of youth on key issues on a global scale. This is clearly seen in the key priorities, as outlined by the Strategy, that highlight the importance of UN-led action via several avenues. The UN has placed upon itself the roles of a leader, a knowledge and innovation pioneer, an investment and solution catalyst and an accountability leader, in order to provide a blueprint and a working example for the Member States on how to translate the Youth Strategy to their respective national development plans. Although somewhat equivocal, the roles of the UN encompass establishing youth advisory boards for UN bodies, enhancing online and offline engagement with the Secretary-General, strengthening internship programs, creating a system-wide repository with easy access to all youth-related knowledge and programs, establishing youth-specific indicators, piloting new models with youth-led organizations, identifying funding solutions for under-financed areas, employing a youth marker system to track progress of UN bodies.

In 2013, the United Nations Secretary-General appointed the first-ever Envoy on Youth. Ahmad Alhendawi served in this position till 2017, when Jayathma Wickramanayake took up the position. The role of the Envoy on Youth is to bring youth people together and explore opportunities for working with and for young people. Young people’s voices are then to be conveyed to the United Nations.

The UN has identified the value of young people and their voice. To ensure this is mirrored at the national level, we also recommend that the voice and participation of young people are institutionalized in official structures, such as in governmental agencies and decision-making bodies of change at all levels in society. This provides a way for the contributive and substantive role of youth to become permanent. One of the most prominent examples of such a real-life translation of this practice, is in the UAE. Through the prominence of its Youth Minister, H.E. Shamma Al Mazroui, and its Youth Councils, young people have a say in shaping the way the country forms its policies towards a more sustainable and peaceful vision.

The UAE is a prime example of effective leadership in applying the UN Youth Strategy and its alignment with the core pillars of the UN vision for a better and a more inclusive world. The country’s early recognition of, and initiatives with, young people speak to its investment in youth as equal participants in sustaining and planning future strategies. The support for youth empowerment is resulting in a practice of sustainable youth engagement for peace. The acknowledgement and continuous celebration of young people’s achievements is a key pillar of engaging them in the national vision of social responsibility and planning for the future.

In 2018, the long history of UN engagement with youth culminated in the creation and official release of the UN Youth Strategy 2030. Although imperfect, the strategy builds on the history and sets forth the foundations of future incorporation of youth in devising strategies and plans for a more peaceful and sustainable future. National development plans, such as the one of the UAE, have incorporated youth in the government structures from very early on, led by the pioneering vision that sees youth as the creators of innovation. The applicability of the Youth Strategy, therefore, is wide-ranging and the international community has yet to fully tap into all of its recommendations and objectives.

In normative and practical terms, the UN provides recognition and supports and encourages the meaningful participation of youth.  The early history of the relationship between the UN and youth can only be seen as basic acknowledgement. However, through the recent Security Council resolutions, the appointment of the Envoy and the UN Strategy, youth are finally being encouraged and supported to engage in meaningful participation. There is now a different and more concerted approach with the Security and the Secretary General’s office acknowledging, endorsing and recognizing the importance of youth. However, the Strategy does not clearly point the way in which this can be realized. It is hoped that the operationalization of an action plan, as mentioned in the Strategy, will provide the way forward and continue the momentum of successful, effective, efficient and meaningful collaboration between the UN and youth for many years to come.