Young people aged 15-24 years are a major force in the contemporary world. Today there are over 50,000 national, regional and world youth organizations, many of which are interconnected by global action networks. But unlike the women's movement, the youth movement has remained largely disenfranchised from the international political scene.
From 2 to 7 August, about 500 young people from around the world will meet in Braga, Portugal for the third World Youth Forum of the United Nations system. The Forum will focus on youth policies, youth participation, and youth rights. Their recommendations will be presented the following week to over 100 government leaders at the first ever World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, to be held in Lisbon from 8 to 12 August.
"These two events will put youth on the global agenda and advance youth power", says Bill Angel, who coordinates the Youth Unit of the United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development. "The meetings represent a breakthrough and form two new global youth platforms -- one for Government Ministers and the other for youth groups in partnership with the United Nations."
The end of the cold war and the global culture of the 1990s have fostered a renewed interest in the international status of youth. "During the cold war, competing youth institutions and ideologies hampered international progress in this area", says John Langmore, Director of the UN Division for Social Policy and Development. "Attention was diverted from the central issues of concern to young people and the development of policies and programmes for youth was inhibited", he says.
The two meetings in Portugal are a follow-up to the World Programme of Action for Youth, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1995. It urged Governments that had not already done so to formulate and adopt a national youth policy. And it cited 10 priority issues to be included: 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 decision-making.
By June 1998, the UN Youth Unit reported that out of a total of 185 Member States, 144 (78 per cent) had formulated a national youth policy and 164 (89 per cent) had designated a national youth coordinating mechanism. However, only 73 (40 per cent) had implemented a national youth programme of action.
According to Peter Kenyon and Simon White, United Nations consultants who have written a paper on national youth policies for the Minister's Conference, youth policy makers "are becoming far more conscious of the need to create an enabling rather than a constraining environment" for young people. And young people are participating more than before in the formulation of policy.
However, they warn of "a great danger that many national youth policy documents remain 'on the shelf', unknown and unread by the broader population, and especially by young men and women".
Kenyon and White, who are Directors of the Australian-based Initiatives for the Development of Enterprising Action and Strategies (IDEAS), say it is vital that those responsible for making decisions regarding youth policies maintain regular dialogue with young men and women. They stress that youth participation should be by choice, enjoyable, challenging and fun, and able to influence decisions.
A report prepared for the Minister's Conference by the UN Youth Unit recommends active youth participation in all phases of developing a national youth policy "from the bottom up and not the top down". The report also calls for the establishment of United Nations youth theme groups within the country programmes of the UN Development Programme to coordinate youth activities of the UN system.
National experts agree that South Africa provides an exciting model for youth policy initiatives. The National Youth Commission was established and inaugurated on 16 June 1996 by President Nelson Mandela. Comprised of 19 young men and women, the Commission is based in the Office of the Executive Deputy President. In preparing policy, the Commission held a national youth summit, 35 youth hearings across the country, provincial youth summits and other seminars to discuss the major issues, challenges and needs of young people. One-hundred sixty-five representatives of major youth groups, political organizations and government departments gathered to review the first draft of the national youth policy and recommend changes. The policy was adopted in December 1997.
The Philippines also has demonstrated a commitment to a thorough involvement of young people in its medium-term youth development plan. Over a period of two and a half years, the formulation process involved two nation-wide surveys to provide baseline information on young people, a summit meeting, and youth dialogues in all 16 regions of the country. The national youth commission is headed by the President's youth adviser, who holds cabinet status.
In Barbados, the Ministry of Education, Youth Affairs and Culture has appointed 32 youth commissioners to interview all young people in their districts. In addition, over 50,000 young men and women have been consulted via census for their views to incorporate into a draft national youth policy.
Preparations for Youth Forum
To prepare for the UN World Youth Forum in Braga, Portugal, regional meetings were held this year in the Asia/Pacific region, Latin America/the Caribbean and Africa. Young people in all three regions agreed, among other things, that Governments should adopt an international charter of youth rights based on existing international standards. Currently the United Nations has developed global standards for the treatment of women, migrant workers, refugees, children and disabled persons, to name a few, but not for youth.
Human rights, along with conflict prevention, is a priority for African youth in particular. The UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), which has reported frequent bans on student organizations, and police brutality against unarmed students, has concluded that "for Africa's youth to participate meaningfully in their self-development, their freedom to express themselves and their freedom from fear must be guaranteed". The ECA says this "can only be assured through the adoption of an African Youth Charter which among things guarantees the right to organize, education, employment, and free and public expression". The African regional preparatory meeting for the World Youth Forum, in Dakar, Senegal, 23-27 March, endorsed the proposal for an African Youth Charter.
Another human rights issue advocated by youth is the appointment of a special rapporteur to monitor youth rights and report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Currently there are rapporteurs who monitor the sale of children, violence against women, torture, religious intolerance, racism and other issues.
The idealism and energy of youth are fuel for social and political change. Recent political changes in Indonesia were seen partly as the result of pressure from student groups. Most youth movements in history have formed over issues of citizenship (freedom of association and speech, equality, self-determination) or the desire for social and cultural expression.
Young people were highly visible during the tumultuous 1960s, when youth populations increased and more young people attended colleges and universities than ever before. In the 1970s and 80s, a rapidly growing aging population in the West tipped the focus away from youth.
Youth Role in Building Peace
The United Nations General Assembly has declared the year 2000 as the International Year for the Culture of Peace. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has initiated a "Youth for Peace" campaign as part of its preparations. In Latin America, for example, a two-year project was launched in many countries in January 1998 to promote peace education.
Outreach to youth is widely recognized as essential in building peace. The UN's only preventive peace force -- the UN Preventive Deployment Force in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (UNPREDEP) - has institutionalized a forum for youth dialogue. "Every month about a dozen youth leaders of different political parties get together with the highest officials of UNPREDEP for a luncheon meeting", says Marc McEvoy, the Force's Spokesperson. "It's a very relaxed forum and we've seen a lot of progress. At first hardly anyone would turn up and those that did would hardly talk to each other. Now they talk to each other and discuss issues. And in May 1998, they signed a Declaration of Tolerance they had formulated, which we regard as a step in the right direction."
Overall, level of the youth participation in the work of the United Nations remains low. While more youth organizations have entered into official relations with the UN, "there is a very uneven and under-developed degree of participation of such groups in the basic decision-making processes of the Economic and Social Council and no formal status in the General Assembly", states a report prepared by the UN Youth Unit for the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth.
Despite the many resolutions of the General Assembly to strengthen the involvement of young people in international forums, only four of the 185 Member States have youth delegates to the annual UN General Assembly session -- Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Austria.
In addition to increasing youth participation in delegations to the United Nations, some point to the need to increase the recruitment and career development of qualified young people within the UN itself. As it stands, the average age of UN staff members is 49 years old. And over 40 per cent of the professional staff will be retiring over the next ten years.
The meetings in Portugal -- and their follow-up -- will demonstrate whether there is the political will to increase youth power and influence within established governmental and inter-governmental circles. If not, young people will simply continue to do what they have been doing all along -- organizing outside of the official halls of power.
For more information, contact:
Development and Human Rights Section
Department of Public Information
Room S-1040, United Nations,
New York, 10017
tel: (212) 963-3771
fax: (212) 963-1186,
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