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Putting youth at the centre of the human rights agenda

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Youth form a crucial constituency for the High Commissioner, and  - to overcome their growing disenfranchisement - he should lead in the development of a specific framework that sets out and champions their rights. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on the New High Commissioner of Human Rights.

Yemurai Nyoni
25 July 2014

Over 50% of the global population is below 30 years of age. The impact of the decisions you will make as the new High Commissioner will be felt by the world’s children and youth for years to come. We are not only the main beneficiaries – or victims - of good or bad human rights frameworks but we will also be major decision makers in shaping the human rights agenda in the next 15 years. Youth, therefore, are your key constituency; hence working now to secure our human rights will ensure sustainable progress in securing human rights for all.

To do this High Commissioner, you must try to see the world, and the choices you will face, through the eyes of young people. Let me help you understand what I mean:

Recent political upheaval and emerging social movements evidence just how deep the disenfranchisement of youth from political and economic life is.  Our re-engagement should be of utmost importance to you. In this regard, addressing inequities and disenfranchisement amongst youth through a dedicated youth human rights framework should be your number one priority. 

This should include, first, a call on governments to address the gaps that exist in too many countries between the legal age of majority and the age of eligibility to run for office. 

Young people worldwide are denied the right to participate actively in the politics of their respective countries both as voters and as candidates for elections. Youth involvement in politics has largely been limited to mobilizing people through violent and non-violent means to support adult candidates for public office. This must change. It is unjust to only allow youth to decide on the political direction of their communities as voters without allowing them to be part of the solution by standing as candidates for election.

Second, you should support the right to decent work for youth. Youth constitute over half  (50.8%) of the total labor force yet 75.8 million young people are still unemployed with a large proportion of those who work forming part of the working poor. Securing this right will oblige states to provide decent work for young people and allow us to be productively employed.

Thirdly, Young people’s right to education, specifically secondary and tertiary level education is falling through the cracks. Existing human rights frameworks stipulate compulsory and free provision of education at primary level only, whilst the provision of secondary and tertiary education are afforded a poorly defined and less significant focus.

Providing secondary and tertiary education to youth is the final and most important step to enabling youth to make a seamless transition into adulthood. As High Commissioner, you need to ensure that young people’s right to education is expanded to include specific reference to secondary and tertiary education so that the existing gains from investments in universal primary education are multiplied.


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Barat Ali Batoor/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

An young Afghan woman with her child. Young people need a comprehensive range of age-appropriate health services that are affordable, accessible, confidential and friendly in a way that they define.


Fourthly, creating a rights framework that fully expresses the protection of young people’s right to health is key. Young people are at high risk of HIV infection, maternal mortality and morbidity, early pregnancy and other related health challenges.  

Young people need a comprehensive range of age-appropriate health services that are affordable, accessible, confidential and friendly in a way that they define. These include but are not limited to sexual and reproductive health services and mental health care. This right to health must encompass the elimination of harmful cultural practices like child marriage and gender based violence that put young people, especially girls and young women, at a greater risk of experiencing negative health outcomes.

The future we want as young people must be free from violence, discrimination and corruption.

Lastly, High Commissioner, you should also broaden youth participation and the focus on youth in the United Nations Human Rights Council. This will allow for the creation of a better defined youth human rights agenda that should, ideally, culminate in the formulation of a legally binding international instrument on the human rights of youth.

Youth experts should form part of the Advisory Committee of the Council and the Council must give full support for the recent proposal by the committee to carry out research on ‘Globalization, human rights and youth’. The Council to-date has failed to give adequate attention to youth and this must change, lest we are forced to rise up and protest against a Council that excludes us even though it is intended to help safeguard our rights as young global citizens.

The future we want as young people must be free from violence, discrimination and corruption; it must provide equal opportunities for all by eliminating threats against individual freedoms, health and prosperity. High Commissioner, you have the power to deliver this for young people and we’re counting on your leadership to make the human rights of youth a reality, and not just a promise.

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