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High-Level Launch of the Report on Protecting Youth in Civic Space

Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

Friday 18 June 2021

Dear Jayathma,
Excellencies,
Dear friends,

I am pleased to join you in this inspiring event to launch the first global report on youth protection in civic space, to which my Office and I are proud to have contributed.

The desire of people to influence their futures is universal. Around the world, people from all backgrounds, all ages, and all walks of lives want to help shape their lives and those of their loved ones.

They – we -- will always look for ways and avenues to do so. Our tools are the human rights to participate, to express our opinions, to associate with, and to mobilise others. That is the case from local to international levels, from social policies to economic development projects, from access to clean drinking waters to climate action.

In fact, both personal experience and the lessons of history have me convinced that meaningful participation is not only a right. It is the only path to long-lasting transformative change and the only way out of crises such as the one we are going through with COVID-19.

History also bears witness to how young people have always been in the frontlines of the calls for change, being particularly active and creative in challenging injustice and inequalities.

We have recently seen powerful demonstrations of their commitment to the human rights of all and of the difference they can make. Through Fridays For Future, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, End SARS and other movements, young people all around have found ways to challenge discrimination and push for accountability.

Countless times, they have been successful in influencing debates of national and international importance and prompting social change in many different ways.

This is a source of inspiration and a reason to hope. It provides us with a glimpse of the huge potential youth advocacy and activism can have as a force for good and transformative change.

I trust this potential can be unlocked through the meaningful participation of young people everywhere. That requires safety and freedom from fear.

However, youth activism in civic space often comes at a cost. As this report shows, in many countries, young people face attacks, intimidation and harassment from different actors. They can be subjected to smear campaigns, harassment of their families and restrictions of movement and ability to speak up. They also can face criminalization, torture, forced disappearances and even targeted killings.

In his Call to Action for Human Rights, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasises the criticality of participation and civic space and called on us all to devote more efforts to the rights of future generations. He highlighted how young people need space to participate in the decisions that will shape their future. He also pledged the support of the United Nations for the development of national protection mechanisms for human rights defenders and environmental activists, particularly young people, women and girls.

The “3 Ps” of civic space, as highlighted in the UN Guidance Note on Protecting and Promoting Civic Space) can help to guide our collective action.

First, as we have been discussing today, we must invest in meaningful and inclusive participation. Young people’s voices and concerns are often unheard, ignored or undermined due to their age. Establishing and improving participation channels is an urgent priority. We should leverage new technologies to facilitate access to information, to reach all young people, including groups that have been historically underrepresented, and to “crowdsource” ideas for how to better tailor policies and projects to the real needs.

Hand in hand with that comes the promotion of open spaces for debate and dialogue -- online and offline.

In this context, today’s decisions about the online space determine how future generations will access information, express their views and debate. We cannot allow those decisions to happen behind closed doors of governments and companies. We need more transparency and we need to bring different voices to the table.

The issue of narratives is another point I want to highlight. Negative narratives about youth activists are often the first step towards more active repression. We have to better respond to these bad narratives and, at the same time, create positive, inspiring ones to support systematic youth involvement and engagement.

And in order to make evidence-based action plans, we need all civic space data to be disaggregated on the basis of age.

Lastly, we must strengthen efforts for the protection of civil society actors at-risk.

While facing the same risks as other human rights defenders, young activists frequently have less means to protect themselves. They also are often disproportionately targeted by violence during peaceful assemblies. In many cases, this is due to harmful stereotypes of youth as troublemakers and enemies of the government.

We need to invest in more effective protection mechanisms that take into account young people’s unique needs and experiences, which are shaped by the intersections of age with other identity factors -- race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, among others.

Governments, international and regional organizations must ensure that State and non-state protection mechanisms are accessible, sustainable, timely and age and gender-sensitive. They should also allow for exchanges with diverse groups of young people, especially marginalized youth groups.

Protection networks have been found to be effective in improving the safety and security of defenders – ensuring their inclusivity and equipping them with the resources they need.

Colleagues,

Participation, promotion and protection, our 3 Ps, are not lofty ideas. They are rights -- enshrined in international instruments recognized by practically all States as legal obligations.

Implementing them is not only the right thing to do – it is also smart. Ultimately, investing in these 3 Ps will make the world a better place. Young people’s safe engagement is a prerequisite for better policymaking and for combatting inequalities. It is also a prerequisite for trust, an indispensable ingredient for societies to be able to overcome the many global challenges we face.

I encourage all participants in this event to consider the following questions, taking into consideration the recommendations provided in this report by Ms. Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, young people and the Protection Working Group of the Global Coalition on Youth, Peace and Security:

What are some proactive, timely measures that can be implemented in order to proactively tackle harmful practices and further discrimination of youth;

What actions are needed to improve existing mechanisms and ensure systematic, meaningful inclusion of young people into them;

Dear friends,

I take this opportunity to once again also thank and celebrate young people worldwide who are standing up for human rights, speaking up and making a difference.

In a moment of multiple crises, they have not ceased their activism, mobilising online and offline in often creative and resourceful ways.

It is young people who have brought a much-needed sense of urgency for global climate action. And despite facing some of the most severe socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, it is also young people who are often at the forefront of response and recovery efforts within their communities, volunteering their time to combat misinformation and to establish support networks.

Thank you for your invaluable work for a better future and your tireless commitment to human rights.