On Thursday the 25th and Friday the 26th of August, the UN hosted the 13th Annual International Youth for Human Rights Summit. Youth delegates from over 42 countries were in attendance, some having travelled more than 50 hours to be at the event! The organizer, Youth for Human Rights International (YHRI) is the youth component of United for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization, founded 15 years ago in Los Angeles. Its mission is human rights education and now brings the message to over 195 nations, in over 27 languages. Focused on educating youth about the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), it was founded by Mary Shuttleworth, an educator raised in apartheid South Africa, where discrimination and lack of human rights were ubiquitous. Over time, YHRI has grown into a global movement where youth are inspired to become advocates for tolerance and peace, in both the classroom and nontraditional educational settings. The use of evocative videos to teach about universal human rights is a powerful method- the educational resources YHRI provides are free of charge, and I have included a link at the conclusion to this report, where one can watch the short history of human rights, a very powerful video.
The summit was divided thematically with different speakers, youth delegates and ambassadors addressingdifferent topics, the first of which was the right to education. A poignantly asked question from the Emcee; ‘how can we fight for our rights if we do not know them?’ A population ignorant of its rights is not able to demand or defend them. Yet according to data and statistics, few in the world today even know two or three of their rights that are outlined in the UNDHR. Human rights education is therefore imperative, especially since (as the President of YHR Mexico, Raul Arias outlined), the more you know about something, the easier it becomes to take responsibility. As Mr. Arias eloquently put, in a statement that has stayed with me since; ‘War is not normal, discrimination is not normal, religious intolerance is not normal, hate is not normal. What is normal is the way we have been accepting it as normal’. His speech, along with that of Desmond Tutu, were some of the highlights of the first day of the Summit. Yet the most powerful moment of the first day was the presentation by internationally renowned photographer Platon. Having established his name as a world class photographer with high profile personalities including Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Dustin Hoffman, Prince and Woody Allen represented in his portfolio; Platon’s latest project however, has taken a different tack. The People’s Portfolio focuses on a new set of cultural heroes; everyday individuals who may not be known by the masses, but are true heroes nonetheless. His stories told with passion and emotion about the individuals he has photographed and what they have endured in the protection and defense of human rights, brought many in the audience to tears. His latest shot, (which he describes as the most important shot of his career) of a young girl whose father was deported, is worth a search for any Instagram user.
The second day of the Summit was no less inspirational, and provided the amazing opportunity to network with youth delegates from around the world, all of whom have been engaged in human rights education in ways that are nothing short of remarkable. Along with having the opportunity to listen to the amazing speakers of day two, including Krishna Bedassie of the Pen and Pencil Program from Trinidad and Tobago, I was given the opportunity to present as a nominated speaker. Speaking on the topic of the prevention of crime and violence, I offered an argument as to how discriminatory processes of the justice system in Australia could be restructured to address the overrepresentation of indigenous youth in detention. I have attached the written copy to this report for those interested. Speaking at the Summit was a wonderful, yet challenging experience, as having the confidence to present at such a prestigious event, in the company of so many amazing individuals required suppressing a lot of nerves! Yet at every point of the Summit, I attempted to remove myself from the equation and remind myself that the message was important. And if others could overcome tremendous obstacles to be at the Summit, the least I could do was deliver this speech with the confidence and passion the words and issue merited.
I feel blessed to have been a part of this Summit; at every point its importance was plainly apparent. Today’s number of youth is the largest the world has ever known, and with that comes enormous potential and opportunity. Young people worldwide are frankly tired of being patronized and being referred to as ‘the leaders of tomorrow’ by those in power, who do so while ignoring the barriers that have been created which prevent youth from gaining a foothold in many areas of society. Those who merely give lip service to youth as a buzzword in speeches, or refer to youth as either problem creators or powerless victims, fail to give credit to youth as both major players and potential players in the creation of positive change. Youth are the leaders of today, not tomorrow or sometime in the future, and this was reiterated throughout the Summit.
In the realm of human rights education, a concept that is the cornerstone of achieving the SDG’s, youth globally have taken on the responsibility of educating their peers in the face of many obstacles. After spending time with many of the youth delegates, I have never had more confidence in the capacity of youth to implement positive social change and to shift the trajectory of this planet towards a more peaceful and sustainable future. And while this will not be easy, I am constantly reminded of the musings of UN former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, who endeavored to ‘exist for the future of others without being suffocated by their present’. The exponential growth of technology and expansion of social media gives us many tools to deliver ideas and messages…let’s make sure we send the right one.
Youth for Human Rights Video ‘The Story of Human Rights’