Today on August 12th, Wanda Tiefenbacher reflects on justice in the context of youth, the potential of young people to make change, and what is needed to tackle global problems.

The world is getting younger. Over 42% of the worldwide population is under the age of 25. More concretely, 525 million young people are “between the ages of 15 and 24, the period of transition from childhood to adulthood, where they gain independence and awareness of interdependence as members of a community”.[1] How are young people all over the world affected by ongoing struggles for justice, and how can they contribute to their resolution?

Every year, the United Nations World Youth Day aims to raise awareness about the situation of youth, calling for the inclusion of youth (organisations) in implementing the World Programme of Action for Youth. The programme was initially adopted in 1995 and identifies fifteen fields of action to ensure the inclusion and effective participation of youth in society. The issues identified are indeed not far from justice struggles affecting those over 25: education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, substance abuse, juvenile justice, leisure-time, girls and young women, decision-making and participation, globalization, IT and communication, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict, and inter-generational issues.

Although humanity as a whole faces similar issues, the narratives involving youth are often treated separately from broader discussions and initiatives around justice. This is not to say that young people are not deserving of particular attention and initiatives: on the contrary, it is vital for youth issues to be addressed separately – the individual needs and interests of young people matter, and often national governments fail to address such issues out of their own accord and leave a large gap for the private sector and NGOs to fill. Nonetheless, when for example looking at how young people are incorporated into (political) decision-making, most countries fare badly providing few to no fora for discussion among youth and/or between youth and other relevant stakeholders, as well as few institutional means to participate in politics unless certain (age) requirements are fulfilled. At the same time, whether it be discussions about unpaid internships or the trauma experienced by unaccompanied minors whilst fleeing, it seems that whatever the issues faced by young people, they are reflective of broader inequalities and socio-political problems faced by many more.

Actively acknowledging the independent agency, needs, and voice of youth does not mean that at the same time, young people and their issues should be excluded from broader efforts to combat injustices. The generation of under-25-year-olds deserves more attention within broader, systemic discussions about justice on equal footing with large-scale decision makers. This is not only outlined in UN Resolution 54/120, but is also recommended in a series of policy documents which have led to the establishment of initiatives like the UN Youth Delegates, the Youth Delegate of the Congress for Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, or the European Youth Delegates. However, only few are given the opportunity to take up these often prestigious positions. How can all the rest stand up for their interests?

One emerging forum for eye-level dialogue on global justice is in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake states “The success of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development depends on empowering young people as rights-holders, agents of change and torchbearers.” The UN released a handbook on the role of youth in implementing the global SDGs, which outlines some valuable starting points and assumes young people to be major agents of change. The sustainable development goals inherently rely on global cooperation, but seen through the lens of youth participation, the most vital individual strategies include taking action by standing up for causes, making use of technological advances to promote interests and share stories, and getting informed on methods and opportunities to make small-scale changes.

To enable the majority of youth to employ these strategies, those stakeholders shaping realities on a more local level – governments, civil society organizations, and individual decision-makers – should acknowledge the potential and inputs of young people and enable attractive opportunities for engagement on a broader level. Positive examples for this are multifold, but still implemented sparsely: for example, including young people in local parliament, fostering volunteerism, enabling mechanisms for youth to address their representatives, fostering civic education, and training youth as peer disseminators for certain causes. Instead of constituting a zero-sum game, bridging the discrepancy between youth empowerment and stakeholder rigidity would result in a win-win situation and help both sides join forces and ideas against shared grievances. Enabling opportunities for 42% of the global population can most definitely help promote a world characterized by justice, fairness and equality. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres puts it: “The hopes of the world rest on young people. Peace, economic dynamism, social justice, tolerance — all this and more, today and tomorrow, depends on tapping into the power of youth.[2]

In this sense, Happy World Youth Day 2018: Join this year’s activities taking place under the theme “Safe Spaces for Youth” and download the toolkit here: http://www.un.org/en/events/youthday/

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[1] https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/UN%20and%20SDGs_A%20Handbook%20for%20Youth.pdf

[2] http://www.un.org/en/events/youthday/

Wanda Tiefenbacher is a researcher at the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Graz, Austria.