Disproportionately Affected Youth Must Be Central to COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Plans, Experts Tell Security Council, Stressing Their Key Role as Game-Changers

SC/14170
27 April 2020

Disproportionately Affected Youth Must Be Central to COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Plans, Experts Tell Security Council, Stressing Their Key Role as Game-Changers

Notwithstanding limited strides in youth empowerment, the world’s young people continue to suffer disproportionately from conflict, poverty and now the most severe effects of COVID-19, experts told the Security Council in a 27 April videoconference meeting*, as they urged Governments to make youth a centrepiece of — and active participants in — their pandemic recovery plans.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres sounded alarms about the acute impacts young people around the globe are feeling amid the virus outbreak, from lost jobs to family stress, mental health and other hardships.  Outlining the findings of his first report on youth, peace and security (document S/2020/167) since the Council’s adoption of a landmark resolution on the same topic, he said that 1.54 billion young people are out of school.  Young refugees, displaced persons and those affected by conflict or disaster face increased vulnerability.  Even before COVID-19, one in five young people were already shut out of education, training or employment, and one in four faced violence or conflict.  “These frustrations and failures to address them by those in power today fuel declining confidence in political establishments and institutions,” he said.

Despite those hurdles, he emphasized that young people continue to find ways to engage, support each other and demand and drive change.  In Colombia, young leaders played a critical role throughout the peace process and had a direct impact on the terms of the country’s 2016 peace agreement.  In South Sudan, they are using the online campaign #SouthSudanIsWatching to assert their rights as observers.  Meanwhile, as COVID-19 spreads around the globe, youth are keeping communication open within communities, maintaining social cohesion despite physical distancing measures.  For example, in Syria, young medical students are helping to build up stocks of medical supplies and are providing critical information through online messaging.

However, he observed, challenges remain, with opportunities for young people’s political participation still inadequate.  “It is not surprising to see declining levels of turnout on the part of young voters in the world, reflecting growing dissatisfaction with political establishments,” he said, voicing concern about threats and attacks against young human rights defenders.  Countries must address such challenges, beginning with support for young people’s participation, organizations and initiatives; protecting civic spaces; and committing to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a massive boost in investment in young people.  “The world cannot afford a lost generation of youth, their lives set back by COVID-19 and their voices stifled by a lack of participation,” he said.

Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Youth, said that while many media outlets have spread images of reckless young people going to beaches, pubs and parties in contravention of COVID-19 lockdowns, those headlines do not represent the majority.  In fact, many young people are working hard to fight the pandemic and support their communities.  Young medical students attended to patients in China and Italy, community peacebuilders in Kenya and Cameroon quickly adapted their work to prepare for the pandemic and Red Cross volunteers ran health awareness campaigns from Jordan to Haiti.  “Young people are not only the most resilient, but also the most innovative and resourceful in turbulent times,” she said, adding that youth — born into an interconnected world — understand the importance of solidarity and that no one is safe unless all are safe. 

Since 2015, she said, the Secretary-General’s reports to the Council have increasingly underlined the roles being played by young people.  Still, more must be done to integrate the youth, peace and security agenda into the United Nations work.  She spotlighted a need for more partnerships between youth, civil society groups and Governments, as well as national action plans backed by adequate resources.  States should create protection mechanisms for youth activists and ensure flexible and accessible funding.  For its part, the Council should consider regular reporting on the implementation of resolutions 2250 (2015) and 2419 (2018) to help translate the youth, peace and security agenda into concrete action.  “We cannot afford to lose the trust of young people, the greatest asset and greatest hope we have for a better future,” she stressed.

Olla Al-Sakkaf, a 25-year-old woman representing the United Network of Young Peacebuilders, said her group works to transform power structures so young people can work together on decisions that affect them.  What the world is experiencing amid COVID-19 has been her reality since 2015, when war broke out in her native Yemen.  Her hometown of Taiz has been under siege since 2016, and people are forced to travel 5 to 6 hours for visits that used to take 10 minutes.  She attends more funerals than weddings and wakes up not knowing if she will see the sun again.  “I walk in the streets feeling scared to be killed by a landmine, airstrike or stray bullets,” she said, adding:  “We face death everywhere and at every moment.”  Five years of conflict in Yemen have exhausted not only systems for health, education and the economy, but people themselves.

However, she said, young people in Yemen are doing their best to build a better future.  Today they are cleaning public places, raising awareness about COVID-19 and risking their lives to save victims from floods in Aden and Sana’a.  Youth groups are providing health centres with sanitizers and helping to train medical staff.  “Our efforts are not only in response to the coronavirus, but also to build peace and re-normalize the public life,” she said, while stressing that young people alone cannot bring peace and prosperity to Yemen.  Among other things, she urged the Council to enable youth participation in all phases and tracks of the country’s peace talks.  Youth, peace and security must remain on the organ’s agenda beyond today’s debate, she stressed, calling for regular reporting by youth briefers on country-specific and thematic topics.  

Gatwal Gatkuoth, founder of the Young-Adult Empowerment Initiative, a non-governmental group in South Sudan, recalled his family’s multigenerational experience with conflict, saying his father was born during the first Sudanese civil war.  When the second civil war erupted, he was forced to flee his parents’ home, and ended up living and attending school in a refugee camp in Uganda. “For me, peacebuilding has become a necessity,” he said, underscoring his desire to break the cycle of violence for his own children.  For that reason, he founded his organization with the aim of strengthening young people’s capacity to create peaceful societies and drive social development.  The group works in Uganda’s refugee settlements to help people unlearn violence and negative stereotypes, and it recently helped to create a new coalition of youth-led civil society groups.

“South Sudanese youth are not asking for more policy documents and resolutions, we are asking for proactive involvement of youth in all decision-making levels,” he said.  Citing some of the country’s most persistent challenges, he drew attention to interclan revenge killings, cattle raiding and child abductions, noting that violence is only intensified by the availability of small arms and light weapons.  The already restricted civil space for youth is shrinking even further amid the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a lack of access to technology.  In that context, he said the Council should support the Unity Government in better enabling young people’s political participation; Member States, international organizations and others must respect, protect and uphold human rights; and youth-led groups must be involved in designing and implementing responsive disengagement, disarmament and reintegration programmes as well as ceasefire monitoring networks.

As Council members delivered statements, many emphasized the uncertainty of the current moment and acknowledged its outsized impact on young people.  Others relayed national and regional-level success stories, while also calling for inclusive, strategic and well-funded actions to further accelerate the youth, peace and security agenda around the globe.

China’s representative joined other speakers in welcoming progress made in realizing the agenda, while also voicing concern that young people continue to suffer from wars, poverty, unemployment and marginalization.  The spread of COVID-19 is now also putting the health, education and employment of young people at risk.  Youth must be protected from conflicts and shielded from terrorism and extremism — goals which require stronger conflict prevention work and efforts to resolve hot-spot issues by political means.  The international community must combat terrorism and violent extremism through unified standards while cracking down on online infiltration by radical groups.  He also echoed other speakers in stressing that young people must be brought into pandemic responses around the world.

The representative of South Africa said the role of youth in peace and security is particularly relevant to Africa, where about 60 per cent of the population is under age 25.  Young people have long been agents of change in South Africa — having been instrumental in advancing the goals of liberation and democracy — and today they are on the frontlines of the battles against poverty, inequality and unemployment.  Spotlighting efforts to make youth empowerment central to South Africa’s development agenda, he added that the country supports safe and enabling environments for young people in conflict situations and invests in their meaningful participation in politics — including through the African Union’s Continental Framework for Youth, Peace and Security, adopted in 2018.

In a similar vein, Niger’s representative emphasized the “game-changing” potential of African youth for both the continent and the world.  In the Sahel region, young men disillusioned by high levels of unemployment and lured by easy gain are joining terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, while young women are kidnapped as prisoners of war to be used as sex slaves or human bombs.  “Their future is compromised, and so is that of our countries,” he said, calling for the creation of gender- and age-sensitive programmes to support the reintegration of children and youth rescued from armed conflicts.  More funding and technical support should go to youth working in conflict areas.  Peacekeeping missions should include youth focal points, while all Member States should establish mechanisms that enable youth to participate at all levels of decision-making, he said.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines welcomed the evolution of the youth, peace and security infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean, as evidenced by initiatives combating violence in Haiti and the contributions of young people to Colombia’s peace process.  Notwithstanding such progress, there is a need for sufficiently funded, focused and strategic action around the globe.  Calling for more support to the Peacebuilding Commission and for greater policy coherence across the United Nations system, she said youth in their diversity must be engaged not just as targets but also as crafters of policy.  Meanwhile, funding should focus on the high levels of unemployment and barriers to education and training that render youth vulnerable to extremist recruitment, criminality and violence — especially amid the despair caused by the pandemic.

Viet Nam’s delegate expressed support for young people’s leadership on issues ranging from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, a lack of awareness and the absence of a comprehensive youth framework remain impediments to youth participation in many places around the globe, especially conflict-affected areas.  He underlined the need to redouble efforts to raise public awareness about the role of young people, particularly young women, citing new efforts at both the national level and under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to do so.  Cooperation at the level of regional and subregional organizations is crucial, he said, noting that ASEAN countries have established a youth cooperation mechanism and the Association is implementing a regional work plan on youth.

The representative of Indonesia was among those speakers who spotlighted young people’s invaluable role in preventing conflict.  “Their aspirations should be heard,” he said, stressing that young people’s participation can increase the legitimacy of peace efforts.  “Leaving them out of the equation leads to an imbalanced approach to peace.”  Noting that Indonesia’s democratic system would have never taken place without the involvement of youth movements, he said young people drive the country’s social progress and inspire political change in a democratic direction.  Engaging youth within their communities is vital to countering violent extremist narratives that may incite terrorist acts, he said, recalling that Indonesia organized a 2019 “Santri for Peace” gathering of young religious actors to foster understanding.

Germany’s representative, highlighting gains made in increasing the political participation of young people, encouraged all United Nations peacekeeping and political missions to adopt broad youth, peace and security strategies, with the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia serving as an example.  Conflict prevention and peacebuilding must include diverse perspectives, including those of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.  Reiterating the Secretary-General’s call for an aggressive back-to-school strategy amid the pandemic, he underlined calls by Germany’s youth delegates for their role as stakeholders in building peace to be both recognized and promoted, and for their participation to be ensured.

The representative of the United States expressed concern that young people remain caught in the crosshairs of conflict around the world and are among the most vulnerable whenever schools are shut down, hospitals are targeted, and humanitarian aid is blocked.  Reiterating her call for Government transparency and accountability amid the pandemic, as well as for access to information, she voiced regret that barriers to youth engagement remain.  “As Member States, it is our responsibility to guarantee a safe environment for all human rights defenders, including young human rights defenders and peacebuilders,” she stressed, adding that all young men and women have the right to participate in public life.

The United Kingdom’s delegate joined others in focusing on the severe challenges emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic, while stressing that young people will be key to the global response.  That means listening to them and taking their needs into account, as they will be hard hit by the second order effects of the virus.  “We need to ensure that they do not bear the brunt of its impact,” he said, noting that school closures due to the outbreak are having a disproportionate impact on girls' lives.  He went on to say that young people, including young human rights defenders and peacebuilders, must have the freedom to champion what they believe in.  Meanwhile, the Council must work together to foster an enabling environment for young people working on peace and security.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, agreeing that more work is required to institutionalize and implement the youth, peace and security agenda.  Among practical actions, he spotlighted the need to create a regional young mediators’ network and a focal point system within the United Nations, including in peacekeeping and political missions, and to conduct annual reporting backed by a clear set of indicators.  Welcoming reports that increasing numbers of youth are proactively combating COVID-19, he agreed that should also be central to recovery efforts.  “Now and always, the protection of young people’s lives and human rights must be a priority,” he stressed.

The representative of Belgium, noting that his intervention was written by Belgian youth delegates, focused on the challenges posed by climate change and hate speech.  The climate crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is not only a direct threat to the livelihoods of billions of people but also aggravates factors that contribute to conflict.  Today’s youth will be the first generation to be heavily impacted by the warming climate, so they should have a seat at the table in addressing it, including through the Council’s thematic and country-specific work.  Meanwhile, hate speech also largely affects young people, who are often the targets of indoctrination.  Extremism and violence can be prevented through more inclusive societies, and should be tackled by a coalition of Governments, private businesses and civil society.  Meanwhile, platforms gathering relevant material for young people and labels that testify to the quality of information are important potential tools, he said.

France’s delegate said young leaders around the world are already in motion and did not wait to act on such crucial issues as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.  Recalling her participation on 24 April in the Young Mediterranean Voices initiatives alongside seven young peacebuilders, she said:  “The question is not whether but how [the United Nations] can better engage with youth in a mutually enriching manner.”  There are still many challenges to young people’s meaningful participation and they continue to be victims of stereotypes, which are too often used as pretexts to ignore their demands and to violate their rights.  The European Union’s cross-regional networks and initiatives allow young peacebuilders to influence decision-making, she said, adding that France is co-organizing a Generation Equity Forum and has provided 200 million euros to the Global Partnership for Education.

The representative of Tunisia described youth in conflict zones as one of the most vulnerable layers of their societies.  “Inaccurate perspectives and stereotypes perceive them as a problem that needs to be solved, or pinpoint them as either perpetrators or victims,” he said.  The five pillars highlighted by resolution 2250 (2015) — namely, participation, partnerships, prevention, protection and disengagement and re-integration — are essential to promoting young people’s contributions.  Youth must be supported and have access to economic opportunities, political participation, social services and security, and they must be protected from all forms of marginalization, hopelessness and stigma.  Among concrete steps, he said that the Council’s mission mandates should include specific language calling for the meaningful participation of youth in peace and security efforts as well as in mediations and peace negotiations, and the monitoring of ceasefire agreements.

The representative of the Russian Federation struck a different tone, noting that while youth should be constructively engaged in peace and security activities their involvement should be based on skills and professional knowledge rather than a desire to produce “beautiful statistical figures” or fill up quotas.  “The task of promoting a positive image of youth should not overshadow real challenges we have to address as members of the Security Council,” he stressed.  Youth are especially vulnerable to radical ideologies and their search for self-identification can be exploited by terrorist groups.  Special attention should be paid to the phenomenon of meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign States by external stakeholders through the indoctrination and brainwashing of young people, especially with the aim of shaping politics or overthrowing legitimate authorities under the guise of promoting democracy or human rights.  He went on to emphasize the importance of creating a culture of peace, providing quality education and integrating youth into a country’s social, economic and political activities.

Estonia’s representative stressed that, while the right to participate in public life is a human right, meaningful participation remains a challenge for many young people and “those in power do not always welcome it”.  Giving young people of diverse backgrounds genuine ways to shape their societies can help avoid tensions and conflicts, he said, adding that failing to do so risks alienating those who will take society forward into the future.  Pointing out that young women often face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and marginalization, he warned that youth may be among the greatest victims of the current pandemic.  More than 90 per cent of the world’s students are affected by school closures, putting them at risk of radicalization and other threats to peace and security.  Against that backdrop, he advocated for a broader implementation of digital learning to make education more accessible to all children and decrease inequalities.

[In addition to the participants in the videoconference meeting, non-Council members, observers and other delegations were also invited to provide written statements for the debate (under Rules 37 and 39), to be compiled and circulated as an official document of the Council, in accordance with letters from its Presidents for March (China) and April (Dominican Republic) on provisional measures and working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic (documents S/2020/253 and S/2020/273).]

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.