Why the next generation is key to protecting human rights

Strengthening youth participation in public affairs is essential to building inclusive and democratic societies that respect human rights.

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Young people have always been drivers of social and economic reform, and today’s global youth population is more numerous and interconnected than ever before. While they have been at the forefront of civic rights movements in recent years, young people are largely excluded from discussions around human rights norms and how to monitor their protection and defence.

Today’s global youth population is more numerous and interconnected than ever before.

Young people are consistently underrepresented in intergovernmental mechanisms and national dialogues, which not only squanders their potential to contribute to effective solutions but also risks disengagement and disillusionment with multilateralism more broadly, at a time when many are already warning of the fraying of the international liberal order. Although there are actors and initiatives working to lift barriers to youth participation in governance – such as the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, or the UN 2016 Not Too Young To Run campaign – these efforts tend to fall short in effecting real change and rarely translate into institutionalized procedures.

While ‘the youth’ is a heterogenous group, comprising different ages, ethnicities, national identities and interests, their participation in realizing human rights is essential to addressing the current challenges and possibilities of human rights for future generations. This will help foster more effective solutions to rights-related challenges, re-build trust in the international human rights framework among younger demographics and broaden and deepen commitments to human rights across generations.

Human rights policies and the online environment

Young people tend to be more technologically literate than their predecessors and also represent the majority of internet users and social media consumers in many countries. They can therefore play a key role in innovating and imagining rights-based solutions to emerging problems for the human rights framework, such as illegitimate collection of data by governments and companies, microtargeting by online platforms, and the sharing of harmful content online. In many cases, international human rights practices have failed to keep pace with these changes and the challenges they bring.

Younger demographics may also approach these novel human rights issues from different starting points. For example, a UK study found that 30 per cent of 18-24 year-olds were ‘unconcerned’ about data privacy compared with only 12 per cent of those aged 55-64, and it has been shown that younger people tend to be more discerning of fake news compared to older generations. There may be a need for human rights institutions and practitioners to acknowledge and bridge these gaps in perspective and understanding to ensure long-term support for proposed solutions.

International cooperation for human rights protection

It has been suggested that young people have reaped the benefits of previous human rights-based policy reforms and have a strong sense of what rights they are entitled to and why these need to be protected through an international framework. Young people are also generally more supportive of multilateralism compared to their older counterparts, as demonstrated by a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center on global attitudes, which showed that 72 per cent of respondents aged 18-29 stated they have a favourable view of the UN, compared with 58 per cent of respondents aged 50 and older.

At a recent Chatham House workshop, young participants from countries as diverse as Lebanon, Kenya and the United States expressed concern that growing hostility towards globalization threatens to undo progress in human rights standards and multilateralism more broadly, progress that they have seen and benefitted from. The rise of nationalist and populist parties has also seen countries shift their attention inwards, as evidenced by former president Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and threats by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, to follow suit.

Engaging more actively with younger individuals on global human rights reform will help ensure the long-term relevance of multilateral cooperation as well as domestic buy-in of human rights commitments.

Awareness of the interconnectivity of global problems

Young people’s proficiency on online platforms has enabled greater coordination and knowledge sharing without geographical constraints, allowing young activists – like Greta Thunberg – to inspire global movements and foster online discussions about intersectional solutions to modern-day challenges.

This intersectional and transnational lens will be a vital component of building solutions to politically or historically complex issues and can be leveraged to foster better understanding of competing human rights claims relating to issues such as land re-distribution in South Africa or limitations on freedom of movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. These democratic forums and platforms will ultimately help build a global community committed to and engaged with human rights.

Tokenism can discourage future engagement and dilute the effectiveness of the forums in question.

Capturing the next generation’s potential

With these concerns and areas of potential in mind, how can human rights institutions and mechanisms create more meaningful avenues for youth input? 

Recent Chatham House research has suggested that multilateral institutions’ efforts to engage youth has often taken the form of ‘superficial listening’, for example inviting a high-profile youth actor to a one-off event or appointing youth delegates who are not able to participate in formal discussions or mainstream governance forums. While encouraging youth participation in meetings focused on human rights can lead to positive change, tokenism can discourage future engagement and dilute the effectiveness of the forums in question.

Capitalizing on the potential of the next generation can be achieved through integrating youth councils and advisers into national and international human rights policy processes, as well as human rights institutions. A few replicable models are already operational, such as the Y7 and the Y20 delegations – the official youth engagement groups for the G7 and G20 – that advance evidence-based proposals to world leaders ahead of the G7 and G20 summits.

At the domestic level, grassroots youth-led movements can help bridge the gap between local constituencies and international policymakers, with youth activists on the ground helping to implement human rights standards and fighting against the spread of misinformation. Strong local networks and civic spaces are essential for pushing back against human rights abuses, and youth activists should be mobilized to connect the efforts of domestic and international bodies to the real issues on the ground; for example, canvassing grassroots youth networks on domestic and traditional customs before implementing development agendas around women’s rights.

As well as providing insertion points for youth policy actors, human rights institutions must communicate their goals more effectively to younger generations and promote intergenerational and inclusive dialogue, for example by holding virtual consultations that  give access to individuals from different backgrounds. Similarly, they should ask young people about their priorities for human rights reform using regular and accessible surveys or by sharing information on online platforms regularly used by this demographic. This will ensure lasting buy-in from the next generation, essential for the relevance and sustainability of the human rights framework in the years to come.

This piece draws upon insights gathered at a workshop hosted by Chatham House in March 2021, which brought together the Institute’s networks of next generation groups including representatives of the QEII Academy Ambassadors, the Panel of Young Advisers, and the Common Futures Conversations community, as well as young members from the South African Institute of International Affairs.