For the last 75 years, the United Nations has been the pillar of multilateralism and international cooperation. As a forum, it gathers its member states in an effort to ensure international peace and security, promote economic development and manage crises like COVID-19. As an organisation, its agencies funds and programmes are working tirelessly against the odds to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
The UN’s 75th anniversary was meant to be a celebration of the UN’s achievements. However, in this most difficult of years – from the global pandemic to systematic attacks against multilateralism per se – it is perhaps more important to reflect on where we are going, rather than where we are coming from. And in order to look to the future, we need to hear from the next generation.
UNU-MERIT in partnership with the Chair of UN Studies for Peace and Justice at Leiden University and The Hague University of Applied Sciences organised two interactive dialogues where young people co-created creative ideas to improve the work of the UN. In September 2020, around 80 students from Dutch academic institutions gathered virtually for the first dialogue on four pressing issues: inequality, climate action, gender equality, and international peace and security. The results were then compiled into a report that was presented on UN Day to the Dutch Foreign Ministry and the International Court of Justice.
On 24 October 2020, we gathered at the Great Hall of Justice, the chamber where the International Court of Justice sits to hear cases and foster the peaceful settlement of disputes between states. Following very strict protocols for social distancing, only a dozen people attended the event in-person while the rest watched virtually. The event had two keynote speakers, who analysed the UN’s track record and provided their take on the challenges that the organisation will face in the years to come.
First, Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, President of the International Court of Justice, emphasised that international law is the bedrock for multilateralism. He also stressed the importance of giving youth organisations a permanent seat at the table so that their voices can be heard.
Second, Stef Blok, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs highlighted the importance of including young voices in discussions about peacebuilding. From his point of view, if we do not include young people it will be difficult, if not impossible to establish the visions we have for the future.
Creative solutions on the ground
After the panellists shared their thoughts, five youth representatives from the virtual UN75 dialogue in September presented the main recommendations stemming from the September dialogue. Three UNU-MERIT MPP students were among those speaking: Rita Bakunda of Rwanda (44:02 in video above), Diana Owuor of Kenya (58:00), and Alexander Lurvink of the Netherlands (1:02:43). The speakers were accompanied by virtual participants who asked the panellists a series of question about the future of the UN and how we are going to address the issues listed above.
UN75 Statement from Rita Bakunda, Student, @UNUMERIT
The gender gap remains a critical issue from the levels of global governance to local communities. The UN should do more to lead by example and advocate for these improvements. It should hold its member states accountable. pic.twitter.com/nIeoB1WgfH
— Chair UN Studies in Peace and Justice (@chair_un) October 24, 2020
Overall the report’s recommendations are actionable, realistic enough to be implemented, but disruptive enough to alter the status quo. While they provided specific policy recommendations for all four themes, there are a few important connecting suggestions that deserve mentioning. Students highlighted that all solutions should be implemented at national level, taking into account the unique features of every country. In other words, they proposed global recommendations flexible enough to be workable across the world. They said that UN Country Teams must build closer partnerships with youth organisations in their respective countries. Youth leaders who work with the UN on the ground can serve as a bridge to the organisation, which remains unreachable and confusing to many young people, who represent an important section of civil society. They stressed that youth engagement should be part of a long-term approach that is well-funded and planned.
Treating youth as a stakeholder is a necessary paradigm shift not only because they are the ones who will be protecting and leading the multilateral institutions built 75 years ago but also because it can foster innovation and creative thinking. More than a mere source of aspiration for constructing the UN we need, the dialogue demonstrates that the agency of disparate youth working together represents a productive source of inspiration for the different possible futures of the UN. These events, and the outcomes that follow, signify that youth will have an essential role in achieving the SDGs by 2030. Bringing to fruition some of these policy recommendations will not just advance the SDG agenda, but will improve the image and relevance of the UN as a whole to the general public.
While many of us celebrate what the UN has achieved over the past 75 years, we must also acknowledge that the principles of multilateralism and international cooperation are under fire. Facilitating the further empowerment of youth agency is the best route towards reaffirming the importance of the UN Charter and building the future we want and the UN we need.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo / A. Brizzi / Hague Talks