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Youth Involvement with the United Nations

By Kehkashan Basu
Youth Involvement with the United Nations

Fifteen-year-old Kehkashan Basu has been spreading the message of peace and sustainability since she was only eight years old, working to enlist the support of children and youth across geographical boundaries. A Year 10 student at the Deira International School, Dubai, she has twice won the Hamdan Award for Distinguished Academic Performance, in 2010 and 2013.
In 2013, at the age of 12, Kehkashan was elected for a two-year term as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Coordinator for Children & Youth and a member of its Major Groups Facilitating Committee, making her the youngest person and the first minor ever to be elected into this position in the history of UNEP. Her internationally acclaimed work on sustainability has resulted in her appointment as the Youth Ambassador of World Future Council, Global Advisory Council member of Young Men 4 Gender Equality, the 2013-2014 Global President of the Children’s Board for Plant-for-the-Planet, the Chairperson of the UAE chapter of the International Youth Council, and a Global Youth Ambassador for A World At School to promote the cause of global education.
The following is a speech Kekhashan delivered at the United Nations Youth Assembly on 5 August in New York.
We, the youth, are amongst the largest sections of civil society today. In many developing nations, we form the largest percentage of the population. With over half of the world’s population under the age of 30, there are more young people in the world than ever. In accordance with our numbers, our needs, aspirations, and representation therefore needs to be the strongest at all levels and in all forums. But in reality, it is just the opposite.
The first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, known as the Earth Summit, recognized that achieving sustainable development would require the active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people. Agenda 21, adopted at the Earth Summit, drew upon this sentiment and formalized nine sectors of society as the main channels through which broad participation would be facilitated in UN activities related to sustainable development. These are officially called “Major Groups” and include our constituency as well, which is the Children and Youth major group, and we share this space along with eight other major groups.
Two decades after the Earth Summit, the importance of effectively engaging these nine sectors of society was reaffirmed by the Rio+20 Conference in its outcome document “The Future We Want.”
Global demographics have evolved and changed drastically since the first earth summit 23 years ago, with the number of youth doubling in number today as compared to 1992. But have our representation, empowerment, and voice increased two-fold? Absolutely not! In fact our marginalization has become even more magnified.
We are the future generations and any developmental agenda that we discuss should have us at its center, in all aspects of policy making, agenda setting, and implementation.
In September this year, world leaders will gather once again in New York to adopt a fresh set of seventeen goals with the intent of ushering in a new era that provides for a life of dignity for all. But the query on the lips of every young person like me, who is a part of the so-called “Future Generation,” will be about the efficacy of their impact on the people who need them the most.
There needs to be an equal, if not a higher level of ambition and political will in defining and mobilizing the means for their implementation. If we do not want the current trend of inequitable progress to continue, one that tends to bypass the future generations, then we need to urgently revamp the implementation system into a well-defined process that has a global review mechanism in place to evaluate performance on sustainable development, that is inclusive of all constituencies and rights holders and that addresses the unique needs of the future generations and is linked to regional and national-level accountability mechanisms.
There needs to be a far greater level of empowerment and engagement for us, the youth, since it is our future that is at stake. No longer can we afford to while away another decade in fruitless negotiations and posturing while a minority reap the benefits of economic progress at the cost of the environment and society.
The Rio+20 outcome document provided us with an opportunity of “promoting intergenerational solidarity for the achievement of sustainable development” by institutionalizing the role of Ombudspersons who would have the intent, the authority, and the latitude to cut across the shortsightedness that seems to shroud the current nature of policy making. Bold steps are required, and it is for developed nations to take the lead and show the way. Ombudspersons must be instituted at all levels—national, regional and international—for them to become effective. They must be the voice of civil society, and in order to be effective, need to possess the key ingredients of legitimacy, independent authority, accessibility, and transparency.
We must also remember that it is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive. The Future Justice that we are looking for needs to be equitable and the same for everybody, irrespective of whether one is from the developed world or the global south.
As William Shakespeare wrote, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” If we are to save our tomorrow, we need to take action today. The onus is on all of us to demand a change for the wellbeing of future generations. It is probably time to emphasize that if we cannot be at the UN, then the UN needs to come to us. In today’s changing world, decentralization needs to be the buzz word.

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