March 21, 2016

Realizing the full potential of a generation:

Implementing a Canadian Youth Delegate Programme to the United Nations

By Joy Aguilar

During the recent United Nations (UN) conference on climate change (COP21) last December, youth activists successfully negotiated with member states to acknowledge the importance of intergenerational equity when taking action to address climate change in the Paris Agreement.

“This is a testament to an entirely youth-driven, multi-year lobbying effort to situate the well-being of future generations as a core principle of climate policy,” Adam Hasz, member of the SustainUS youth delegation to COP21, said.

The inclusion of intergenerational participants in the Paris Agreement is one example of effective youth engagement in a UN conference. More specifically, intergenerational equity contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 13 on taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

According to the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, the role of youth as partners will help determine the success of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“We need to engage youth as partners in development [...] not to support young people as if they were a charitable thing, but we need to invest in young people because it’s a smart investment,” Alhendawi said.  “We can’t achieve the SDGs if youth are considered as beneficiaries [...] there are too many to cater for. They are half of the world’s population, and in some regions like in Africa, the number of young people will continue to grow over the next 40 years.”

As part of his 2015 electoral platform, prime minister Justin Trudeau included 217 promises—one of which is to create a national youth advisory council, “consisting of young Canadians aged 16 to 24 to provide non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister on issues the country is facing.”

The implementation of a national youth advisory council is one way that young people may be involved in decision-making processes on a domestic level; however, this doesn’t account for youth involvement on an international level.

In order to shift the perception of youth as beneficiaries to partners in the international sphere, young people need to play an active role in decision-making processes that affect them, alongside governments and other stakeholders. Youth can participate in decision-making processes on an international level through the United Nations Youth Delegate Programme.

The program allows young people to represent youth perspectives from their country at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and functional commissions of the UN Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) as part of their country’s official delegation.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (UN DESA) Guide to Youth Delegates to the United Nations, the “underlying principle of youth participation in the work of the United Nations is that it leads to better policy and programmatic responses to the problems facing young people today.”

Through the Youth Delegate Programme, not only are young people empowered to directly impact policies but governments also benefit from the perspectives of young people in the implementation of sound policies.

“Listening to youth and making them full partners in the decision-making process can help governments enact more effective and legitimate policies and programmes, especially with regard to youth issues,” UN DESA noted.

Establishing a youth delegate programme to the UN falls under the discretion of a member state; currently, Canada does not have a youth delegate programme. The presence of official Canadian youth delegates at the UNGA was last recorded in 2005, which was the inaugural year for Canadian youth delegates at the UNGA.

According to UN DESA in the Guide to Youth Delegates to the United Nations, the role of a youth delegate differs depending on the country but usually entails tasks at the international and domestic levels.

Internationally, youth delegates may advise their country’s official delegation to the UN on issues related to young people. Youth delegates also attend intergovernmental meetings and informal negotiations at the UN.

Following their work at the UN, youth delegates return to their home country and share their insights with other young people by visiting universities, schools, youth organizations and other civil society organizations.

“A majority of a youth delegate’s tasks is devoted to these domestic activities,” Ralien Bekkers, a former Dutch youth delegate on sustainable development, said.

In last year’s UNGA, only 48 youth delegates from 27 member states participated in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural). With the UN’s total of 193 member states, this reflects a low number of member states participating in the youth delegate program.

According to the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) in the Youth at the UN: A Handbook for Establishing National Youth Delegate Programme to the United Nations, the lack of accessible information on how to establish a national youth delegation, is a challenge for countries that have not yet created the program.

“Establishing such a programme comes with its own unique set of difficulties, including convincing government officials of its value, navigating bureaucracy, overcoming funding challenges, and putting the appropriate processes in place for a sustainable and democratic programme,” the WFUNA handbook read.

Overcoming the challenges of establishing a Youth Delegate Programme is worthwhile. Apart from empowering young people and allowing the government to produce sound policies for young people, including youth voices in an official delegation enriches policy dialogue and improves communication and cooperation channels between youth and governments according to UN DESA in the Guide to Youth Delegates to the United Nations.

“Upon returning to their home countries, youth delegates often promote continued progress in the development and implementation of youth policies at the national level and encourage other young people to discuss more fully the development of their communities and nations,” UN DESA noted. “Youth delegates also spread awareness and knowledge about the work of the United Nations to young people in their home countries, making them important actors in promoting the aims and principles of the organization.”

With many students at McGill University who are passionate about international issues that are discussed at the UN, the Youth Delegate Programme would be an excellent avenue through which students may voice their concerns within the UN system, provide input for policies, and reach out to other youth to talk about ongoing UN processes.

The program in the Netherlands, which is supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one  example of a successful youth dialogue program.

As part of the Dutch National Youth Council, Bekkers worked on sustainable development for a two-year term from 2012 to 2014, starting at the age of 20 years old. At the time, she was studying for her Bachelor of Science in Future Planet Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Ralien Bekkers | credit

Bekkers has been an advocate for sustainability and climate action since 2009, under the mission of working for a sustainable world for future generations. As a youth delegate, she represented Dutch youth at UN intergovernmental meetings related to sustainable development, and collected input from young people to present to policymakers.

Bekkers’ first appearance at the UN level was at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

“One of our main points as youth [during the conference] was to get education on sustainable development in the text,” Bekkers said.

Bekkers and other youth activists managed to negotiate for member states to include the importance of informal education in paragraph 231 of the outcome document of the conference, which encourages “Member States to promote Sustainable Development awareness among youth, inter alia, by promoting programmes for non-formal education in accordance with the goals of the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.”

Germany also supports a strong youth delegate programme, sending two youth delegates for sustainable development to serve two-year terms. The youth delegates on sustainable development are supported by the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety.

Currently, 21-year old Jasmin Burgermeister serves as one of the official youth delegates on sustainable development as a member of the German Federal Youth Council. Her term began last year just before the she attended and represented German youth at the UN High-level Political Forum for Sustainable Development in New York City.

Jasmin Burgermeister at the 2015 UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development | credit

Studying international relations and global history at the University of Erfurt, Burgermeister is an advocate for European integration and collaboration in external affairs along with social and sustainable development.

Her tasks as a youth delegate include speaking out for the implementation and review of the SDGs to young people (especially with regards to the role that youth play in these processes) and politicians, as well as promoting the UN to young people.

Burgermeister also participated in this year’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum in New York City. On behalf of German youth, Burgermeister addressed other youth delegates and representatives of member states, emphasizing the importance of youth in the monitoring and review of the SDGs, also known as the 2030 Agenda.

“We talked a lot about the role of youth in implementing the [2030] agenda (the overarching theme of this forum for the last two days), but I think we must not forget that the youth has a role to play in the monitoring and reviewing process of this agenda,” Burgermeister said.

“The HLPF, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, will be the main body to ensure the review and monitoring process,” Burgermeister said. “I am a youth delegate accredited to the HLPF and I just wanted to use this opportunity to call out to all the young people present in this room [and] also to member states’ delegations to establish or to found a youth delegate programme in your country.”

While the Government of Canada does not have an official Canadian Youth Delegate Programme to the UN, McGill has facilitated the presence of youth at the UN.

Holding consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill, Inc. (IRSAM) sends student delegates to intergovernmental meetings at the UN Headquarters in New York City twice a year.

This year, the organization sent delegations to the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Social and Economic Development. The delegations observed processes involving member states, met with diplomats to discuss various international issues, and attended events hosted by UN bodies and non-governmental organizations.

IRSAM President Kaitlyn Bowman, U3 Industrial Relations, said that attending these intergovernmental meetings gives the opportunity for students to learn about international processes at the UN level.  

“This allows them to share their knowledge with their peers on campus and bring conversations from the UN back to McGill,”  Bowman said.

On a national level, Young Diplomats of Canada (YDC) has enabled youth participation within the UN system by sending Canadian youth who are at least 18 years of age and younger than 30 to World Bank-International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings and the World Trade Organization Public Forum.

Apart from meetings within the UN system, YDC sends delegates to the Y8 and Y20 summits (the youth engagement platforms for the G8 and G20 summits) and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Forum.

At these forums, youths selected by the YDC can advocate for policies that echo Canadian youth perspectives. An example of the impact of YDC’s engagement with international processes is the acknowledgement of the Y20’s inputs in the youth unemployment section of the G20 leaders’ 2014 communiqué.

If an official youth delegate programme were to be implemented, the Canadian federal government must ensure that the selected young people truly represent Canadian youth perspectives.

From her time at the ECOSOC Youth Forum, Burgermeister saw that even with regional representation, the real representation of the world’s youth has not been ensured.

“If we really want to establish the ECOSOC Youth Forum as a body to express young voices, we also need to consider the legitimacy of the Forum’s participants based on factors such as the participants’ origin, their social class, their education, what kind of youth they represent, and the youth organizations that they are part of,” Burgermeister said.

Even after being selected as official delegates, challenges lie ahead for Canadian youth representatives.

Burgermeister notes that a major challenge that she faces as a Youth Delegate is not being taken seriously as an equitable partner and being viewed as quota youth.

“Young people have to participate as partners in international politics, but this is only possible if they can be taken seriously by decision-makers regarding the things they are saying,” Burgermeister said.  “This means they [youth] have to have real expertise in topics they are discussing.”

It is worth having discussions on potential challenges because the current political environment is ready for the implementation of a Youth Delegate Programme. With Prime Minister Trudeau as the Minister of Youth, the concept of including young people as part of the Canadian delegation to the UN is feasible.

Apart from promising to create a national youth advisory council, the Government of Canada suggested the feasibility of a youth delegation to the UN through its recruitment of a youth delegation (open to those aged 15 to 18) to the Junior 7 (J7) Summit—a G7 event hosted by the Government of Japan who will have G7 chairmanship in 2016—which will take place from 22 to 28 April 2016 in Kuwana City (Mie Prefecture), Japan. The latest move by the federal government that supports the feasibility of a Youth Delegate Programme is Prime Minister Trudeau’s campaign for a Security Council seat.

“[Canada’s campaign for a Security Council seat] should include a commitment to restore the youth delegate component of Canada’s voice at the United Nations,” Colin Robertson, current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said. “I can't think of a better way to bring fresh thinking and new ideas to the UN. It would also help prepare the next generation of Canada's multilateral diplomats."

Ultimately, the creation of a Youth Delegate Programme requires a change in mindset.

“The smart mindset required for achieving the SDGs is thinking about youth as partners, creating more opportunities for them to be engaged politically, socially, economically [...],” Alhendawi said.

“I think the challenge is now that for many people, they are still thinking of young people as talking at young people, not talking to young people; we need to engage them more smartly, and I think that’s the transition that the United Nations marked itself by having this logo of the United Nations working with, not only working for, young people,” Alhendawi said.

In working towards the SDGs, Trudeau must step up and work with youth as equal partners through the creation of a Youth Delegate Programme in order to tap into the skills and talents that young people have to offer.

Only then can the full potential of Canadian youth be realized.