Looking Behind the UN Youth Office: Considering Structural Limitations of Youth Participation After the Party

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Last month, the UN General Assembly decided “to establish the United Nations Youth Office as a dedicated office for youth affairs in the Secretariat” (op. para. 1). While the new office was met with general praise, it is important to understand this development in a broader context of international law’s engagement with youth. Pointing to structural limitations, I argue in this blogpost that enthusiasts should be cautious. Youth participation in international law will remain what is always has been: a continuous struggle.

A Brief Appraisal

Resolution 76/306 is remarkable in at least three aspects. A central aim of the resolution is enhancing the structure or the architecture of youth participation. The UN General Assembly acknowledges “the proposal of the Secretary-General to establish a dedicated United Nations Youth Office in the Secretariat to ensure that the voices of youth are more systematically integrated across the United Nations system” (preamb. para. 5). As part of this, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, an office established by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2013, will be integrated into the UN Youth Office (op. para. 1). Further, the UN Youth Office has numerous tasks in this spirit, such as encouraging “greater United Nations system-wide collaboration” (op. para. 3 lit. c). The other two aspects worth highlighting concern finances and staffing. Since the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth was established, it chronically lacked funding and staff. As the office has been purely a project of the Secretary-General, it depended on fundraising. Now, however, resolution 76/306 emphasises “the importance of ensuring that the United Nations Youth Office is provided with sufficient financial and human resources” (op. para. 2). All of this ignites the hope that issues affecting young people will be advocated more coherently and effectively, resulting in greater recognition and representation of young people in international law.

An Enthusiastic Celebration

To say that the resolution was well received would be an understatement. The current Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, celebrated the adoption as “historic moment” and as “groundbreaking milestone to advance the @UN’s work with & for youth everywhere”.  She was certainly not alone as Chido Cleopatra Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy, perceived the resolution as a “ground making milestone for the youth” too. Others such as Rabab Fatima, High Representative for Least Developed, Landlocked Countries, Small Island Developing States, Egypt and the Dominican Republic, joined in, highlighting the moment as “historic”. This begs the question of what exactly marks the resolution as historic. A new institution dedicated to young people on a global level may be assessed as revolutionary following a certain narrative; one that is unaware of the historical struggle for recognition of young people (see Angel 2015, 3-39).

Truly revolutionary?

The attempt to institutionalise youth in international law is nothing new. Stemming from my conversations with practitioners and activists in the field, however, I have the impression that by now, this effort has reached a certain point of confusion. A point at which a general overview of all modes of youth participation is missing – let alone their tasks, activities, and impact. For instance, this year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights founded a Youth Advisory Board.  In December 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Director-General of the World Health Organization launched his Youth Council.  During the climate strikes in 2019, the UN Secretary-General appointed his Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. In December 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees established his Youth Advisory Council. Even international organisations which seem rather dislocated from youth engage in this dynamic. For instance, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) introduced the Generation Connect – Europe Youth Group in 2020, and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) set up the Global Youth Tourism Summit. Regional organisations and political forums too engage with youth. There is, for instance, Youth7, a platform for young people supplementing the G7 meeting, a Baltic Sea Youth Platform initiated by the Council of the Baltic Sea States (see also here) and even a Youth Parliament to the Alpine Convention. Beyond that, States have the possibility to send Youth Delegates to the UN General Assembly which was recognised by the UN General Assembly in 1981 and forms one of the most renowned participation modes. To make this status even more complex, young people are invited to take part in specific, selected events. For instance, in autumn last year, 400 so-called youth delegates (they had in fact the status of observers, see my criticism here) met at Pre-COP26 in Milan.

Considering Structural Limitations

Against this background, the UN Youth Office does not seem as revolutionary as it appears at first sight. Youth at the UN can be understood as something from the past, something which has a history. Through this narrative, which takes young people’s engagement in international law seriously, the UN Youth Office appears as another point in youth’s long history – but not historic, groundbreaking, etc. My critique, however, moves beyond this.

Young people form a heterogenous group. Theorising and practically enforcing universalistic ideals such as youth participation should take the accusation of anti-essentialist critiques seriously (Harris 1990). While this is nothing novel for, for instance Feminist Approaches to International Law (see Charlesworth/Chinkin 2000, 52-56), this insight could prove to be of help for Young Approaches to International Law. Leaving questions of tokenism aside, youth participation has been proliferated on a global level through a decentralised or ad hoc approach. Substantial developments may not be natural consequences of a quantitative expansion of youth participation modes (for an attempt to track norm-changing processes see here). In my view, this approach led to a state of fragmentation in which young people often are not aware of their domestic colleagues or predecessors, and international counterparts. It might well be the case that young people from the same State support opposing claims in the name of youth (cf Charlesworth/Chinkin 2019, 205). Normatively, resolution 76/306 is of little help to identify a common aim as it employs rather broad and vague language (e.g. “Decides that the United Nations Youth Office will: (a) Lead engagement and advocacy for the advancement of youth issues across the United Nations, in the areas of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights”, op. para. 3 lit. a). Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin pointed aptly to similar limits in the context of UN Women stating: “It [UN Women] is a significant development of the structures of global governance and provides a focal point for analysis of women’s lives at the international level. At the same time, the new ‘gender architecture’ may offer a renovated room with no substantive view.” (2013, 36).

As pointed out in the beginning, better integration and “greater United Nations system-wide collaboration” is to be applauded (op. para. 3 lit. c). However, one should be careful with one’s expectations. The resolution gives no insights into how the UN Youth Office is to achieve the ideal of greater coherence. Quite on the contrary, the wording reads “Decides that the United Nations Youth Office will: (…) Encourage greater United Nations system-wide collaboration” (op. para. 3 lit. c). Having the presented status quo in mind, “Encourage” does not appear so encouraging after all. The practical enforcement seems as opaque as the “financial and human resources” whose importance is only “Emphasize[d]” (op. para. 2).

This provokes a step back, raising the question whether establishing a special institution is useful at all. Back in 1982, a Norwegian Youth Delegate to the UN General Assembly had a clear position as he feared the isolation of young people:

“Only with the greatest reluctance would it [his Delegation] support proposals for creating a new body within the United Nations to deal with matters concerning youth. It considered rather that better use should be made of existing organs” (para. 58).

His Dutch counterpart was of the same opinion:

“[T]here should be (…) no new institutional structures, since so many already existed. Young people preferred stimulating youth initiatives, acceptance and appreciation of their opinions, and allowance for openness, freedom (including freedom of conscience) and progressiveness. Youth issues should be integrated into the overall United Nations policies and programmes. Existing structures should be strengthened at the working level instead of creating a new United Nations body on youth.” (para. 16).

Charlesworth and Chinkin highlighted the dilemma between specialisation and integration with regard to UN Women and offered constant challenge and revision as means to engage with this new institution (2013, 36). The same holds true for the UN Youth Office. While a moment of celebration might be well deserved, one should look beyond the UN Youth Office. Normative vision, practical enforcement, and awareness of structural limitations is needed.

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