Written by Alanya Dhalla
Although romanticized, glorified, and idealized, the United Nations is also extremely bureaucratic, rigid, and traditional. This nuanced space is deceivingly complex and learning the ropes is a difficult process.
From July 11 to 18, 2019 the youth delegation from the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) travelled to New York City for the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF). This annual forum was established in 2015 for countries to report on progress towards Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Throughout the two-week meeting, six goals underwent a thematic review (Goals 4, 8, 10, 13, 16, and 17) and 42 countries presented a Voluntary National Report (Sustainable Development, n.d).
Throughout the two-weeks, a formal program is followed, with special events and numerous side events occurring in parallel. Although there are official side events which occur inside the United Nations building, there are also an abundance of unofficial side events outside of the UN building led by civil society organisations and country missions.
Throughout the first few days at the forum, it was evident that the rigid bureaucratic structure of the United Nations caused frustration among youth participants. The entirety of youth voices, regardless of region, gender, nationality, race, class, and all other intersections that determines one’s identity, is represented extremely narrowly. The Major Group for Children and Youth (MGYC) holds one seat on the floor during most official meetings. Choosing one person to represent the largest demographic is absolutely impossible.
Furthermore, MGCY is accessible to any youth present at the HLPF regardless if they are part of a country’s official delegation. This results in a disproportionate amount of youth being from countries in the Global North. Accessibility is the leading cause of this; travelling to New York is extremely expensive, US border policies prevented numerous countries from obtaining visa’s, and civil society restrictions in numerous countries has resulted in their inability to attend global forums.
There was also an evident disconnect between what was being addressed at meetings and government action. Both official and unofficial side events had key speakers talk about the urgency of our current situation. The climate crisis was amplified by special rapporteurs, representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and ambassadors. However, there was a complete lack of urgency seen from Canadian representatives to the High Level Political Forum. During a meet and greet at the Canadian Mission to the United Nations, youth were repeatedly told phrases along the lines of “this is a long-term goal” and “change takes a long time”. But the chance of securing our future is slipping by, and we do not have time to take a passive role on this issue.
Although frustrations with the overall process did arise, there were also so many learnings from the week.
There is a lot of talk about meaningful youth inclusion, yet the word ‘meaningful’ has almost become a buzzword when addressing this topic. Youth need to be included not just for the sake of ‘inclusion’ but because we bring something unique and meaningful to the table. This includes adequate representation. Although true representation is impossible as it would require every youth in the world to have their voice heard, it is clear that one seat cannot represent the concerns of an entire generation.
Some of my most profound learnings came from events focused on climate change. Mr. Philip Alston, the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, claimed that every human rights concern is going to be radically impacted by climate change. Furthermore, he explained how climate change poses a serious threat to democracy. Governments around the world have been, and will increasingly continue to declare ‘climate emergencies’. Currently 16 countries and 822 jurisdictions have made this declaration (Climate Emergency Declaration, 2019). Mr. Alston noted that in emergency situations, governments are more likely to supress citizens’ rights and freedoms. Rubenstein (2015) extends these sentiments by noting that emergency claims are often “weapons of the strong” which work to reinforce existing hierarchies and undermine the interests of marginalized peoples (p. 103). This would exacerbate the already disproportionate impact of climate change, which tends to fall heavily on women, girls, and Indigenous peoples (Yadav & Lal, 2017). Furthermore, Mr. Alston explained that if the climate situation exacerbates, governments will be pushed to take an authoritative stance. Democracies tend to only look towards the next electoral cycle, and therefore, have a hard time dealing with the demands of effective climate action.
“Paper straws are cool, but we are going to need a revolution” –Jamie Margolin, 17-year-old founder of Zero Hour
Among climate conversations, there were many pockets of hope, which stemmed from presentations surrounding best practices and solutions. Vanuatu, a country which has spent 64% of its GDP recovering from cyclones since 2015 (Australian Government, n.d), has established a system where NGOs at the grassroots to national levels must be consulted before any policy can be passed. Claire Blanchard, the head of global advocacy for the WWF, presented a new deal for nature and people, which stressed that by 2030 we need to zero the loss of natural habitats, halve the footprint of production and consumption, and zero extinction of species. To accomplish this, she outlined four goals: phase out fossil fuels, upgrade to efficient food production and reduce meat consumption, develop effective management of the oceans, and the re-wild as many natural spaces as possible. There was talk about reforestation, abolishment and redirection of harmful subsides in meat production, transportation and the fossil fuel industry, as well as a focus on corporate responsibility.
Overall, my time at the United Nations High Level Political Forum was a rollercoaster of frustrations, at the rigidity of the system, at its limited accessibility, at the tokenization of youth, and at the utter lack of urgency of the Canadian Government. But it was also filled with hope, from the efforts of countries truly implementing progressive policy, at the hardworking activists fighting for environmental and human rights, and from the many courageous youth who spoke up and voiced concerns.
Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (n.d). Supporting cyclone recovery and reconstruction in Vanuatu. Retrieved from https://dfat.gov.au/geo/vanuatu/development-assistance/Pages/supporting-cyclone-recovery-reconstruction-vanuatu.aspx.
Climate Emergency Declaration. (2019, July 18). Climate emergency declarations in 822 jurisdictions and local governments cover 145 million citizens. Retrieved on July 21 2019 from https://climateemergencydeclaration.org/climate-emergency-declarations-cover-15-million-citizens/.
Rubenstein, J. C. (2015). emergency claims and democratic action. Social Philosophy and Policy, 32(1), 101-126. doi:10.1017/S0265052515000096
Sustainable Development Goals: Knowledge Platform. (n.d). Introduction: High-Level Political Forum 2019 Under the Auspices of ECOSOC. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/hlpf/2019/.
Yadav, S.S., & Lal, R. (2017). Vulnerability of women to climate change in arid and semi-arid regions: The case of India and South Asia. Journal of Arid Environments 149, p. 4-17.