Youth Issues at the UN: an Interview with Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth

Youth Issues at the UN: an Interview with Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth

. 16 min read

Jayathma Wickramanayake is the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth and is the youngest senior official in the UN. Wickramanayake works to expand the UN’s youth engagement and advocacy efforts across all four pillars of the organization’s work—sustainable development, human rights, peace and security, and humanitarian action—and serves as a representative of and advisor to the Secretary-General.

Why was the role of UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth created, and how do you think the position has evolved over time?

My position was created back in 2013 by the then Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. I'm the second person to hold this position, and my predecessor was Ahmad Alhendawi of Jordan, who I'm very grateful to for starting this from scratch and building it up so that I could take it forward.

The position was established in 2013 as a response to the massive demand from young people in civil society asking for an interface with the UN. We were seeing at the time, through [the] Arab Spring, how young people were really also challenging institutions to be more inclusive, to be more representative, and demanding for the spaces that young people truly deserve in decision-making. For a very long time, youth-led civil society has been advocating for [the] establishment of a dedicated UN agency on youth, a permanent forum on youth, [and] a special advisor on youth. These ideas were floating around for a while, until Secretary General Ban Ki-moon decided, “I'm going to put my foot down, and I'm going to create this new position,” which he hoped would be a start-up in the UN to find ways to change the organization from within.

The role of the envoy was envisioned [to] entail a lot of advocacy efforts: advocating with member states, advocating within the UN, [and] positioning the profile of the youth agenda in a very high-level manner. However, to your second question of how that position has evolved… I actually feel like maybe one-third of my work now is advocacy because we do a lot more than advocacy right now. With myself and my team, we do UN system coordination. We have [not only] developed a strategy for the UN system to streamline our work with youth [and] make sure we pool our resources when it comes to youth, but also developed a set of principles when it comes to engaging with young people meaningfully. And then we do accountability: we have a scorecard [and] we have reports that measure the impact of [the] UN's engagement of young people. So now, I would like to say the position has evolved from a position of an advocate to—of course somebody who continues advocacy—but then also [someone who] does the internal reform within the UN to coordinate the massive UN system better. And to [not only] ensure accountability from the UN itself, but also from governments on delivering on youth policies.

In 2018, the UN launched Youth 2030, an initiative to integrate more young people and their opinions into the UN’s work. Which aspects of the Youth 2030 plan are you most enthusiastic or optimistic about?

I'm enthusiastic mostly about the idea that the UN could unite behind a strategy that is really cross-cutting and that is actually crucial for the future of the organization. Because when we talk about the policies and strategies that we are working on today, this will not only have an impact on the generations who are here now and the adults who are making these decisions. It will have a profound impact on the future and the lives of the young people who are here today, [and] also those who are yet to be born, or the future generations as we call it.

The multiplicity of the agenda is [such] that you cannot address the youth issues from the Youth Envoy’s office. You have to address youth issues in education through UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and UNICEF (the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). You have to address youth issues in peacekeeping and peacebuilding through the Department of Peacekeeping Operations [and] through the Department of Peacebuilding. You have to address it through climate change conventions. You have to address it through [the] ILO (International Labour Organization). So [Youth 2030] really also gives us a tool, the youth strategy, to bring in this multifaceted nature of the youth agenda and use that as a tool to unite the UN system behind holistic approaches for youth development. Just like in government how different ministries don't often talk to each other, in the UN also you have instances where UNESCO might not talk to UNICEF, [and] UNICEF might not talk to [the] ILO. But the strategy really pushes us to talk to each other, to work with each other, and it incentivizes joint work because the scorecard, or the accountability tool, would actually give you more points for your performance if you work together at the global level and at the country level. This, for me, is one of the most fascinating parts of the strategy.

I think we've also been incredibly lucky to develop the strategy at the time of UN reform. If you had followed the UN development system reform, [Youth 2030] is actually [in] the spirit [of] the UN development system reform as well. Being able to integrate the youth strategy into [the UN development system reform] was an achievement for us, and now it is very sustainable in that way because it's integrated into [the reform].

Thematically, I think another important part is the recognition of young people's human rights. This was an area, even when formulating the strategy, that we were very keen about. I do feel in my work that young people are kind of hanging in the air when it comes to the realization of their rights. People talk about children's rights in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. People talk about human rights as rights of citizens. But then, even though all human rights apply to young people, because they're in this transition phase, often they're treated differently. So you're not a child, but you're also not considered a full-grown adult. Often, your access to these rights [is] violated, or restricted, because society do[es] not recognize you as a full adult. This recognition that young people have human rights, just as any other person in society, and embedding that in the strategy and taking a human rights based approach to education, to development, to employment, to peace and security, was the second thing that makes me most excited and hopeful about the future that holds for the strategy itself.

The Youth Envoy Office, as part of Youth 2030, just released a report on protecting young people in civic spaces. This report highlights the need for youth to feel safe while participating in political activism. What can the UN actively do to build safe spaces for youth to engage in government? In what ways is the UN limited in its ability to pressure governments to respond to this report?

So, in the report we've identified six types of threats that young people face in being civically and politically active, from legal, to economical, to social, [to] political. This is all gendered as well. I noticed in my work, and it's backed by evidence as well, [that] young women and girls face additional barriers when it comes to protection. Often, gender-based violence [and] harassment has been used as a tool to suppress their voices, and LGBTIQ young people would face another set of barriers. So identity itself poses threats when young people speak up on issues.

But on your question on what the UN can do, I think the first thing we must do is create safe spaces. So for example, yesterday, I contributed to a webinar hosted by young activists in Myanmar, for the international community, about the issues they've been facing in standing up to the Military Junta. In this meeting, we decided that none of the youth activists will disclose themselves or disclose their pictures because we feared for their safety, and we wanted to make sure that this is a safe space for them. And I think, for us as the UN, when we organize this type of event for advocacy, it's important that we are aware of the types of threats that these young people face sometimes for working with the UN. We know that young people are being harassed in communities by state and non-state actors just because they were working with the UN on specific issues. We have to be really careful about not jeopardizing the safety of young people, but at the same time recognize as an international organization we have a responsibility to create safe spaces. So first is that understanding and awareness because still, there are many stereotypes about, “if it's a youth meeting or a youth conference, it has to be very flashy and very active [and] out there on social media.” But no, that can be really unsafe for certain groups of young people who have to work under very oppressive conditions.

Second, we have to be very bold in the way we stand up for young people. I know that some of the young people do not feel fully comfortable in terms of reaching out to different partners because they do not know who to trust. Building that trust and making sure that we are a reliable partner, and that we actually protect them when they need support, is about taking them out of a challenging situation or putting ourselves behind them [and] endorsing the activism. There are different strategies that we can use. Often, we face conflicting situations with governments when we are seen as protecting somebody who is speaking against the government or government policies. These are waters that we have to always navigate because we shouldn't compromise on the values that we believe in, which is the freedom of expression of young people. The UN has to, and should, protect young people when they are in danger and at the risk of being retaliated [against].

Thirdly, I think one of the important points of supporting and protecting young people is also making sure they have access to resources. I find most of the time, youth civil society organizations are informal networks of young people coming together, out on the streets, in the community club, to find solutions or express their dissent towards an issue. They are not often registered NGOs that have 15 years of experience that can apply to UN funding. So, how do we make sure that financial resources, legal resources, [and] legal support are accessible to informal networks of young people? It's really about coming out of this structural thinking into understanding how young people organize themselves, being flexible enough to respect the way they organize themselves, and still find ways to provide them seed funding or legal counsel or other resources to support them.

As the UN, when we create spaces, making sure that spaces are safe, speaking up for young people, protecting them, standing behind them when they face retaliation, and making resources available for young people, both financial and non-financial resources, are three things perhaps the UN can do better in cooperation with the international community to protect young people.

Also digital safety is important because we've seen censorship on digital spaces, harassment and violence in online spaces, and how a digital footprint is used to crack down on activists in countries. I also want to talk about a solution, for example, with Twitter. My office developed an activist checklist for Twitter as to how young activists can be safe on the Twitter space. So, we've been trying to also work through some of the tools that are already available to us to make sure that we give young people the tools that they need to be safe in the online spaces. Particularly during the pandemic, they had to shift activism to online spaces, and often this is much more accessible to censorship and surveillance.

The world has recently witnessed a rise in youth activism around climate change. In response, the UN has taken actions such as hosting a Youth Climate Action Summit and creating a Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. In what ways have youth uniquely been able to contribute to dialogue at the UN around climate change? Are there any policies that have been specifically enacted as a result of youth input?

On climate, I must say that it's really the youth movement and their activism and their mobilization that also pushed the UN to be more vocal on this issue and consider this as [an] urgent existential crisis. I know that the Secretary General also often gives credit to the youth movement for really holding us accountable, and holding our feet to the fire, when it comes to climate issues.

Particularly on climate debates, usually youth engagement has been a key part of broader civil society engagement on climate issues. For example, the COP (Conference of the Parties) always has a day dedicated for young people and future generations. Before the COP, youth-led civil society gathers to a Conference on Youth to formulate their opinions and feed them into the COP. We've seen young people included in national delegations for the negotiations at the COP. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) has a formal constituency, dedicated to young people, called YOUNGO. It acts as this flat network of thousands of youth organizations working on climate. [They] self organize and [provide] input [in]to different processes that happen at the UN. In 2019, we organized the first UN Youth Climate Summit, ahead of the Secretary General's Climate Summit. We've been really trying to work with youth organizations themselves to create these spaces.

Most importantly, I think young people [should] come together and talk about climate, [and the UN should work] to create an interface [between] young people and policymakers. In all of these events, what was very important for us was to create that intergenerational dialogue because climate justice is an intergenerational justice issue. The ones that will be impacted most by this crisis are not the ones who created it. This can create a really tense conversation between the two generations trying to put the responsibility on each other. Young people say “older people created this crisis and now we have to live with it.” Older people say that “we messed up, [and] now it's up to you to find the solution, so you should keep holding us accountable.” But who do we put the responsibility on? We know that the issue is there, and the only way we will get through it is through jointly working together. How do we benefit from the experience and lessons learned from past generations, and leverage the creativity, innovation, and idealism that new generations or young generations bring? In that sense, to really turn the conversation around from blaming each other, or focusing on the issue, into focusing on the solutions. The youth movement has helped us create that narrative. For example, competitions like Summer of Solutions [and] Reboot the Earth that we conducted highlight that young people are not only complaining, they're also coming up with technological solutions for the climate crisis [and] entrepreneurial solutions for the climate crisis.

This has also helped the UN shape its own climate strategy when it comes to youth engagement. The Youth Advisory Group has been key in terms of giving that feedback in a very raw and authentic manner directly to the Secretary General. We have seven amazing individuals nominated for this group, also in wide consultation with youth organizations. We did not pick them as the UN. We asked youth organizations to nominate representatives. They are not shy; they are very brave. They ask the Secretary General questions, [and] they give him very honest raw opinions, which I think is very important for him and the leadership of the UN and governments to hear. It can get very diplomatic and very neutral [in] conversations at the UN, and we need to continue to hear this truth from the people who are living. In that sense, I would say it's really been a turning point in terms of youth engagement in climate issues for the UN, particularly for the Secretariat, because there's other parts of the UN who have been doing this for a very long time. But for us, the youth forums that we organize, and the Youth Advisory Group, have really been a turning point when it comes to pushing the UN to also be more bold and active on the climate issue.

Last year was the 75th anniversary of the UN, which prompted Secretary General Guterres to create the UN75 program, where different groups across the world were surveyed to understand their views of the UN. Recently, the Secretary General released his report called “Our Common Agenda,” detailing the outcomes of these exchanges and devising a vision for the future of the institution. Based on this report and these conversations, how do youth view the UN?

This is very interesting because we know that, around the world, trust between young people and institutions is very fastly deteriorating. Young people do not trust institutions anymore, and [much] of our research has shown us they see institutions as unresponsive, not transparent, not flexible enough, hierarchical, bureaucratic, [and] very slow. [This] does not [agree] with the face of change that we see outside in the world of technology or on general day-to-day services that we experience. This also made us think, what would young people [be] thinking about the UN? We are a 75-year-old organization, perhaps more bureaucratic than governments in many cases. We went into this exercise dreading the results that we would see.

It was honestly very interesting for us, and even surprising I would say, to see that the majority of people who took the survey were young people. I don't have the numbers off the top of my head, but young people were the demographic group, out of everybody who took the survey, that was most optimistic about the future of the UN. But this did not come out of some naive idealistic idea they have about the UN. They were very clear in saying, we believe in multilateralism, we believe in the UN, we believe that our shared challenges in the world right now go beyond borders [like] climate change, peace and security, migration, [and] COVID-19. This cannot be stopped by a border of a country. So we believe in finding solutions with everyone coming together. So we believe in multilateralism. But if you continue the way that you do business now, this will not happen. We believe in a positive, optimistic future for the UN, given that you make your decision-making today more inclusive and more representative. So, more spaces for non-state actors to participate in decision-making, for young people to have a seat when the UN decides on its most important policies and resolutions, for civil society to have seats, for women to have a seat. Basically, for a more representative UN that reflects the power dynamics that we see in the world right now.

When the UN was established 75 years ago, governments were the biggest players. But right now, they're not the biggest players. We have social movements which have so much power, like the Fridays for Future movement on climate that you brought up, women's marches, [and] democratic movements in places like Sudan which managed to topple 30 years of dictatorship. We have corporations, multinational companies, [and] tech companies that are as big as the GDP of ten to fifteen countries combined. We live in a world that is significantly different in terms of the power dynamics from the time the UN was established. Let's reflect that dynamic in the way that we make decisions at the UN. If we become that inclusive today in the way that we conduct business at the UN, then, young people said, ‘we are optimistic about your future’. So this was really a very important [lesson]. I think this is why the Secretary General put young people and future generations as a foundational item in his common agenda and talks about approaches to increase youth participation and focus on future generations in the UN for the next 75 years.

One other issue that matters a lot to young people is education, since it mostly concerns them. However, youth input in this area receives substantially less attention than other matters like climate change. What institutional mechanisms currently exist, if any, that incorporate youth perspectives on education?

I agree [with] what you said that sometimes this focus can be seen as maybe we are prioritizing climate over education, or peace and security over education. But I think it's really not about putting issues against each other to see which one is the biggest priority paining people. It's about finding holistic solutions that address these issues together. It's not like today climate change will impact my life, tomorrow education will impact my life, day after tomorrow health will impact my life. These are all interlinked.

This is why, for me, education is something that brings all of these ideas together. For example, what we do in the climate space is to advocate for climate education or [for] climate to be integrated into national education curricula. In the Security Council, we've made recommendations for peace and security, or peacebuilding, or conflict resolution to be integrated into educational curricula. On health, we've been looking at how to integrate comprehensive sexuality education into educational curricula. On employment and technology, we've been looking at how we empower young people with the skills for the future. It's really about weaving education into the other conversations we have in parallel on thematic issues, and bringing those conversations also into the education policy-making arena. We are doing better and better, now more than before, in terms of understanding these intersectionalities and really trying to integrate them together. But still there's a lot more to be done. [With] education being such a contextualized sector in countries, it's more important than any other area for the UN to work very closely with governments to shape education and curricula, to shape education on policies, and to ensure that adequate funding goes into universal quality accessible education.

On youth engagement, we have seen a number of initiatives on education that engage with young people. One of the things that I can immediately think of is UNESCO, our leading entity on education. They've established a SDG4Youth Network. This network works with UNESCO to not only advocate for better educational policies in countries, but they also help accountability. Are we meeting the indicators on SDG4 (Sustainable Development Goal 4) around the world? If not, how do we hold governments accountable for doing so? In the very recent climate conference on youth we hosted with Italy, we dedicated an entire plenary session on climate education. We brought together young climate activists and ministers of education from more than seven countries for a dialogue to push and advocate [for] them to integrate climate into their educational curricula. There have also been efforts, such as [the] Education First Initiative [and] Theirworld, that might not be directly UN initiatives, but have been very much aligned with the UN by some of our special envoys running them, who also have youth groups, youth advisory groups, and youth engagement groups who contribute to the policy-making itself at the very beginning of these initiatives. Another one that I can think of is the UNGEI, the UN Girls’ Education Initiative, that is also based out of UNICEF that specifically looks at challenges for girls’ education. We also work very closely with our partners such as the Global Partnership for Education [and] the Malala Fund in identifying areas where, because of child marriage, teenage pregnancies, and poverty, young women are being excluded from education. [We are] looking at specific interventions and integrating them into education policy-making and implementation. These are some of the examples that we have for engagement of young people in the educational space.

I just want to say that at the global level, I feel like we have taken so many efforts to listen to the voices of young people, integrate them in setting these global norms or standards on education or climate issues. But at the end of the day, the real action happens in countries. And this is where we are right now seeing the biggest gap. We want governments and UN country teams to work together to also replicate what we have at the global level at the country level, very constructively, very openly, [and] safely engaging young people in policy-making on climate, on education, [and] on other issues at the country level. This is where we will also, as an office, try to focus a lot in the coming years. You can talk normatively and theoretically about issues at the global level, but at the end of the day, every country is different. Every country's reality is different. Every country's financial situation is different. Every country's stability is different. And these policies have to be contextualized, and it has to be done by listening to the reality of young people who live in that country. For next steps, this will be something that we will be pushing our systems to also focus [on] more and more.

Nayar interviewed Wickramanayake on October 20, 2021. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Cover image: UN Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth