An open letter to young people from the President of the United Nations General Assembly

Why the UN needs a dialogue with youth

By Miroslav Lajčák 

Often when we think about dialogue, we think about talking. But the most important part of dialogue is listening. And right now, the United Nations needs to listen to you.

You are part of the largest population of young people that our planet has ever seen. So, you need to be included in global conversations about issues that affect us all.

That’s why I’m convening a Youth Dialogue on 30 May in New York. The goal is to help break down the walls between youth and the United Nations.

And let’s be clear.  We’re not doing this for just you. We are doing this for all of us. Because if we do not bring you in now, we are putting our collective future at risk.

I don’t believe that you should only be consulted on so-called “youth issues”, such as cyber-bullying or athletic programmes in schools. When our Member States agreed on a blueprint for a better future, known as the Sustainable Development Goals, they included specific references to “children”, “young” and “youth”. But all of the Goals apply to all young people and cannot be achieved without them.

It makes sense that, if we don’t pull up a chair for you, you will leave us behind. Throughout history, young people have created positive social change both with and without the United Nations. Our relevance depends on youth involvement and not the other way around. Where we have left you out, you are creating your own spaces.

So, the onus is on us to reach out. Throughout my time as President of the General Assembly, I have held monthly Twitter chats to engage directly with you – without middlemen. I have also held talks at universities and met with young people at the United Nations and on my trips abroad.

There are three areas where I have seen, first-hand, the power of youth movements.

The first one is the Sustainable Development Goals. From ending poverty to creating employment opportunities, young people are leading the way.

The Young Champions of the Earth, whom I met in Nairobi, are coming up with sustainable solutions for environmental problems. And the “YOUNGO” members I spoke with at climate change meetings in Bonn impressed me with their advocacy and knowledge of the issues.

Unfortunately, many of you are still being left behind when it comes to education and employment. Sure, more of you now have access to education. But we need it to be quality education – the kind that equips you to get decent work.

The global youth unemployment rate is three times that of adults. What’s more is that there is a high rate of you across the globe who are employed but living in poverty. With today’s job market being affected by globalization, climate change, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and migration, it’s becoming tougher for governments to deal with youth unemployment on their own.

Another area where I’ve been impressed by your resilience and advocacy is peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

During my recent trip to Colombia, I learned about the indispensable role that young people played in the peace process there. At my Youth Dialogue, we will hear from Leonardo Párraga, the founder of the Bogotart Foundation, which works to prevent conflict through vocational training for youth.

And, recently, we welcomed the United Nations’ Youth Peace and Security Progress Study. Half of the advisers who contributed to it were young. To me, the most significant aspect of this study was that it debunked many damaging myths about young people.

The vast majority of you are productive members of society. But there is a minority who turn to violent extremism. It’s crucial for us at the United Nations to understand the effects of war and violent extremism on young people and to tackle what has been called the “violence of exclusion”.

The third area where youth participation is critical is political discourse, including in multilateral fora.

Many of you have already been engaging with the United Nations – at youth-focused events or through Model United Nations conferences. This participation is key to having your positions and views reflected in the work we do.

But despite the various youth conferences and increased attention being paid to youth, our scorecard remains less than ideal.

We have seen some progress. The General Assembly, which brings together all Member States of the United Nations, has adopted numerous resolutions highlighting how important it is for young voices to shape our work on topics ranging from sustaining peace to countering terrorism to protecting the environment.

But we need to go beyond words on paper and improve our outreach and outcomes. I look forward to the conversation between you and today’s leaders on education, employment, prevention of violent extremism and other challenges. We need to work together if we’re to build a better world for all of us. So, let’s support each other on 30 May at the United Nations in New York. Our future depends on it.

You can learn more about the Youth Dialogue here

Miroslav Lajčák is the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations


*** This op-ed was published in Teen Vogue***