Today, nearly half the world’s population – 46 per cent – is 24 years-old or younger. Africa and the Middle East have the highest proportions of young people.
These young women and men are an asset to be nurtured, cherished and listened to. They represent hope and promise, they have a huge amount to offer our world – and they are a top priority for the United Nations. I recently held a high-level retreat to look at how we can make our organization more relevant to young people, foster investment in their future, and engage them in dialogue.
Not only to communicate with them, but especially to listen to them and to allow them to effectively participate in our decision-making systems.
I do not agree that young people are the leaders of tomorrow. More and more, they are the leaders of today. I thank all the young women and men who are stepping up and assuming those responsibilities.
Today’s discussion is centered on young people who are at risk of disempowerment and alienation, and susceptible to extremist narratives and recruitment.
If we are serious about prevention, and particularly about preventing conflict, we need to be serious about engaging with and investing in young women and men.
We need their energy to tackle the most serious challenges facing us.
We need their involvement and commitment, if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, take effective action on climate change, and create a safer and more peaceful world.
We were all young once. We can all remember the intensity of our adolescent years. Those experiences often feed into passionate idealism that creates change for the better.
I remember that in my adolescent years I was living under the dictatorship. I remember the generosity of the Portuguese young people fighting for the freedom of the country and together with the freedom of our country, the freedom of the peoples of the former Portuguese colonies.
Indeed, it was the dynamism of the youth that was absolutely crucial in the transformations that my country has been able to lead.
Youth need to be seen more and more, not as a threat, but as an enormous potential for our world, especially in our search for peace, development, justice and respect for human rights.
I think it is also true that violent extremist groups target and invest in young people because they are aware of their potential and their strong desire for change.
Recruiters and peer networks engage personally and individually with young people, tapping into their discontents, listening and offering alternative views and analyses. They exploit grievances and use manipulative messages, conspiracy theories and lies, offering a twisted sense of purpose to disaffected young men and women. Extremist groups may also use digital technology to increase their reach across borders and cultures.
The tragic irony is that at the same time, young people often lose most from terrorist ideologies. They are targeted for attack at public events, in schools and at universities.
Extremist groups promote an identity for young men that is based on violence and the policing of women’s roles. They thrive on repressive gendered identities and attitudes towards women and girls, denying them their rights to education and participation in public life. Malala herself was attacked for going to school. And young women of Iraq and Syria have been routinely targeted by terrorists for sexual enslavement, forced marriages, exploitation and abuse. The use of gender inequality by these groups is deliberate and strategic; our counter approach must therefore include a focus on empowering young women.
If we are to counter terrorists’ manipulative messages, we must engage with young people on their terms. Which is why it is so important to bring young people into the conversation, to enable them to express themselves, to listen to them, invest time and resources in them, and empower them to realize their goals.
Children and young people yearn for better lives, for better futures for themselves and their societies. We need to support them in fulfilling their dreams.
Around the world, young women and men are at the forefront of efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism and promote peace.
They are skilled communicators with networks that may extend around the world, and almost unlimited access to information.
This digital emancipation creates new challenges for leaders. But we should never ignore the obvious, or make things more complicated than necessary.
What young people need today is what they have always needed:
Education, jobs, and vocational training.
Investment, interest, role models and goals.
Meaningful participation in decisions that affect them.
A voice and a place at the table.
More than that, we must be prepared to go to their table, sit down and to listen.
These goals must be an absolute priority in national development plans and in international development cooperation.
Dialogue and understanding, political inclusion and participation, good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law; the empowerment of women and girls: these are the tools to enable children and young people to grow into responsible citizens with the fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that this entails.
I hope and intend to make the United Nations more responsive to young people, based on a more creative and technology-based approach, starting at the local level.
We are working with our missions and Country Teams to enable young people to engage in peacebuilding processes around the world.
Through the Office of Counter-Terrorism, we will also further step up coordinated programming to support young people against the lure of terrorists around the world.
The threats of terrorism and violent extremism offer a real opportunity to unite, align our actions and goals, and pursue an inclusive approach. I hope this will be reflected in a consensus outcome in the General Assembly on the sixth review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy this summer.
I encourage all Member States to join the Security Council Open Debate on Youth, Peace and Security on 23rd April, and to participate in the High-Level Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism
Agencies on 28 and 29 June 2018. This will include a focus on engaging youth and preventing misuse of new technologies and the Internet by terrorists.
These will be important opportunities to emphasize that young women and girls, young men and boys, are central to building and sustaining peace and creating a safer world.
Let us build on the idealism, energy and innovative power of youth. Let us honour the positive resilience and resourcefulness of young people.
And let us offer young women and men options, and inspire them with the hope and opportunity they deserve.