Youth and Human Rights

Uzra Zeya
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Washington, DC
December 13, 2013

As Prepared

Thank you, Nicole, for that kind introduction. It’s a true honor to be here at CSIS – and with such an impressive crowd, both in this beautiful new building and on the web. I am delighted to see friends and colleagues from across the academic, diplomatic, and think tank communities. Thank you all… for bravely attending an event on Friday, the 13th.

Nicole, on behalf of your former colleagues at the State Department, I want to congratulate you, CSIS, and the International Youth Foundation on this groundbreaking inaugural year of the Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative. We eagerly await the release next year of the Global Youth Wellbeing Index, a new initiative that will fill a critical knowledge gap and promote youth-driven policy formulation.

But, in truth, I am here for two reasons.

And the first one is simple: to help Nicole reach her goal of attaining 1000 followers on Twitter. I’ve been told she’s currently at 930. So for those of you following this discussion in the audience or online, please note her handle, @nicolegoldin.

The second is more complicated: that is, to address the topic of today’s discussion – youth and human rights.

And so, if you will indulge me, let me begin with a realization.

In the 65 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, each generation has been blessed with iconic human rights leaders who drive change and inspire others to stand up for what is right.

For youth of a certain era, it was the famed nuclear physicist turned dissident, Andrei Sakharov, who would capture the world’s attention by bearing witness to human rights abuses in the Soviet Union.

For students of an ensuing generation, including President Obama, it was the fight against apartheid in South Africa embodied by Nelson Mandela, whose unconquerable spirit prevailed over 27 years of incarceration and led millions of South Africans to claim the equality so long denied them.

Speaking just after Mandela’s passing was announced, President Obama stressed that his, “very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics was a protest against apartheid.”

I shared a similar experience as a college student in the mid-1980s when the divestment movement, inspired by Mandela’s courage in the face of injustice, took root at campuses across the nation.

For our ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, it was the televised image of a faceless man standing before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Ambassador Power recently reflected on the impact of that moment in college by saying: “It made me think…How did a person so alone simultaneously come to stand for the rights and aspirations of millions – and why are so many people around the world compelled to risk their lives just to obtain freedoms that most of us here just get to take for granted?”

For individuals like today’s panelist, Daniel Solomon, and his colleagues at STAND, those same questions spurred a decade of young human rights activists to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

And for today’s millennial generation, it is the work of a 16-year old Pakistani student named Malala Yousafzai who braved bullets in pursuit of a simple dream: the right of all children, especially girls, to attend school. This summer, the United Nations honored her heroism by declaring July 12th Malala Day. Inspired by her example, more than 500 youth delegates from nearly 90 countries descended upon the UN to advocate for global access to quality education.

In each of these examples, a defining person or movement galvanized the hopes and aspirations of millions. In each of these stories, the remarkable courage of one individual inspired a sense of responsibility among many, especially the young.

Unburdened by convention and fresh with new ideas, young people will always be at the forefront of societal change. As Secretary Kerry recently told a global audience of young entrepreneurs at the recent Global Startup Youth Summit in Malaysia: “Every step towards progress actually does start with young people.”

Nowhere is this more true than in the space of human rights. If history is any guide, it has proven that human rights activism is by no means reserved for the over-40 crowd. In fact, progress in human rights is often fueled by young women and men who reject an unjust status quo. Look no further than here in the United States.

• In 1831, a 25-year-old named William Lloyd Garrison founded the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and set in motion a path toward the constitutional end to slavery.

• More than a century later, a 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and set in motion the dawn of the civil rights era.

From Mandela to Malala to the millions of activists who flooded the streets of the Middle East, young people have always played a unique role in the protection and promotion of human rights. This is even more true today, where the proliferation of technology has diminished the space between people. Where a picture on Instagram can document an abuse, a reliable hashtag can mobilize a protest, and a Youtube video can raise the awareness of millions.

It was almost two years ago that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a town hall in Tunisia that “the world ignores youth at its peril.”

We have since witnessed some notable changes in the region. But her point remains just as relevant, if not more so. If those who grew up during the Depression and World War II were dubbed the ‘greatest generation,’ today we are eye witnesses to the ‘largest generation’ – in the history of humankind.

Most of you are familiar with the statistics but they still bear repeating:

1. More than half the world’s population is under the age of 30. Nearly 90 percent of them live in developing countries.

2. In Africa and the Arab world, 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

3. In ASEAN countries, 60 percent of citizens are under the age of 35.

These demographics point to an intriguing dynamic. When it comes to human rights abuses, this generation is on the front lines – at once the most visible and the most vulnerable. Put differently: young people are the most likely to stand up against human rights abuses and the most susceptible to being abused.

Allow me to point to three specific challenges and then offer a few thoughts on U.S. government efforts.

1) The first is how to incorporate the priorities of youth into democratic transitions during a time of global youth unemployment and disenfranchisement.

According to the International Labor Organization – or the ILO – more youth are poor or underemployed than ever before. The ILO estimates that:

• 73 to 75 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are looking for work.

• About 309 million work but live in households that earn less than the equivalent of $2 per day.

• The Middle East faces the highest regional average of unemployment among youth, at over 28%.

The dim prospects for success, let alone a stable future, can lead to disenfranchisement. As the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said last year, “it is not so much joblessness as hopelessness that threatens our future. Unemployed youth lose confidence in the society that has failed to give them the chance to realize their potential.”

We saw the desperate act of one young Tunisian fruit-seller that led a country, and then a region, to stand up against corruption and repression. When some leaders responded by trampling on the freedoms of assembly, association and expression, the protests – led by students and the unemployed – up-ended the existing order.

With change comes opportunity for inclusive economic growth and for new rights-respecting legal frameworks that specifically protect youth and allow them to achieve their full potential. But as countries transition from autocratic systems, we also know that youth are more vulnerable to labor exploitation because they are desperate to find work and don’t have a voice in society. So we must ensure that freedom of association and decent conditions of work are not sidelined as we support democratic transitions now underway.

2) This brings me to issue number two: Gender-Based Violence.

This past Tuesday, December 10, we celebrated Human Rights Day. But we also marked the conclusion of the Sixteen Days of Activism to End Gender Violence. Both days remind us of mounting evidence that gender-based violence is a global epidemic that disproportionately affects women and girls. It crosses every social and economic class, ethnicity, race, religion, disability, and education level. And it transcends international borders.

We have seen, for example, that an estimated one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Often, this violence is perpetrated again young women or adolescent girls.

Gender-based violence is an affront to human dignity. It increases girls’ vulnerability, threatens their health, and undermines their full enjoyment of their human rights. So we must work together to ensure that all girls and boys can live lives free from violence, or the threat of violence, in order to reach their full potential.

3) And finally, issue number three: Rights of Persons with Disabilities

There are an estimated one billion people with disabilities worldwide. Many are young men and women, boys and girls. All too often, they are stigmatized, relegated to the margins, and treated like second-class citizens. UNESCO estimates that 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school. Some are warehoused from birth, others are denied a birth certificate, and still others are tragically killed. And it is estimated that disabled people, including youth, are three times more likely than their non-disabled peers to be victims of physical and sexual abuse, including rape.

These three issues are a mere sampling of the cross-cutting human rights challenges facing young people. With enough time, I could have discussed how LGBT youth are particularly vulnerable to official and societal violence and discrimination. Or about the persistent unlawful recruitment of child soldiers. Or the shocking prevalence of child marriage for young girls. Or the scourge of human trafficking. I leave this last issue in the capable hands of my State Department colleague, Alison Kiehl Friedman, who will discuss this during the panel discussion.

But in the remaining minutes, I’d like to address how we in the U.S. Department of State approach the issue of youth and human rights.

1) For starters, we view global youth demographics as an exceptional opportunity. The Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review exhorts us to “reach out to youth populations to promote growth and stable democratic government.”

As many of you know, in 2010 the Secretary named a Special Adviser on Global Youth Issues; today, we are fortunate that Zeenat Rahman – who is in the audience today – holds this position and is leading the Department on these issues.

Zeenat and her staff are working round the clock to address the issue of youth unemployment. They do this by partnering with multilateral institutions, the private sector and foreign governments to implement solutions around addressing the skills gap. They have worked with embassies and consulates worldwide to establish 70 Youth Councils. These councils were formed to give young people a voice and an opportunity to address local policy concerns, in partnership with U.S. policymakers. We are already seeing results in places like Cambodia, where the Youth Council collaborated with the private sector to focus on developing employment opportunities.

My bureau – the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor (or “DRL”) – also promotes the rights of young workers in the workplace. We worked with the ILO and the G20 to ensure that this issue is addressed as a human rights, development, and economic challenge, and also to encourage inclusive solutions. Last year, we organized a strategic dialogue with civil society on the margins of the annual International Labor Conference to hear from young workers and activists how best to tackle the youth unemployment crisis. These ideas have fed into DRL’s foreign assistance budget and informed programs that will boost economic opportunity for all working people, especially youth.

We have also begun addressing the challenges of the unregulated informal sector where most youths find work. We believe that moving these jobs into the formal sector is a “win-win-win” – for the workers who gain social protection, for governments that obtain additional tax revenue, and for businesses that benefit from a more productive and stable workforce.

2) On the issue of gender-based violence: last year, the United States released the first-ever U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. It was accompanied by a Presidential Executive Order directing follow up by all relevant agencies. DRL recently launched a new public private partnership called the Gender-Based Violence Emergency Response and Prevention Initiative. It provides short-term emergency assistance to survivors of extreme acts of gender-based violence, including certain harmful traditional practices. In addition, it offers targeted prevention and protection assistance to GBV organizations and technical training to justice sector actors.

Our Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Catherine Russell, is championing our GBV efforts. Working in tandem with her office, we have strengthened reporting of human rights violations and abuses against women and girls in the annual human rights reports. This includes on issues of female genital mutilation and early and forced marriages. We will continue to devote ourselves to combatting all aspects of GBV.

3) And on the rights of persons with disabilities, we have galvanized efforts at home and abroad. Led by Secretary Kerry and Judy Heumann, the Department’s first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, we are seeking U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – also known as the Disabilities Treaty. Ratifying this treaty will put the U.S. in the best possible position to export around the world the U.S. gold standard in protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, including youth with disabilities. Ratification will also help us share technical expertise with other countries, and to develop laws and practices as effective as ours.

Meanwhile, the Department’s EMPOWER Program connects disability advocates from more than 20 countries and the U.S. through a series of exchanges aimed at promoting inclusive communities worldwide. We know that such approaches can only be strengthened by our ratification of the Disabilities Treaty.

Again, this is just a sampling of our youth and human rights efforts. We also fund programs – such as the Global Nomad’s Group – to provide young people across the Middle East with creative outlets for expression. We provide at-risk youth with peaceful alternatives to violence. And we work with young people to develop the tools for civic engagement.

But let me stop there, and conclude where I began.

It is often said by government officials that “young people will determine the future.” That they are the leaders of tomorrow. Yes, that’s true. But our youth also determine the present. They are leaders of today and we should follow their lead. And, together we can commit – in the immortal words of the Universal Declaration – to build a world where all people “are born free and equal in rights and dignity.”

Thank you.