At the United Nations this week, the pandemic-era rules of engagement for General Assembly week are strict. Entourage sizes are strictly regulated and there are no exceptions for kings, presidents or other “excellences.” Yet somehow, in the midst of it all, the UN has made room to fully embrace the diplomatic soft power of seven young Korean pop stars.
While mega-popular BTS may sing that they don’t need “Permission to Dance,” the decision to allow the K-pop group to both deliver a serious speech to world leaders and film a new sunny clip at the distinctive UN headquarters. was another of the many signs that elders are ready – eager, even – to turn to young people for diplomacy and relevance.
In this age of children’s icons and social media activism, the contrast was obvious: a darling musical juggernaut around the world led by young South Korean men with perfect makeup on one side, and the famous institution 76-year-old diplomatic, bureaucratic, even cumbersome. built in the aftermath of WWII on the other.
The paradox was captured by Trevor Noah, the millennium late-night talk show host: âThe old people were probably looking at that, like, ‘What’s a BTS?’ “, he said. “And the young people were looking at him, like, ‘What is the UN? “
In his opening address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres practically berated world leaders for disappointing young people with perceived inaction on climate change, inequality and lack of educational opportunities, among other issues.
âSome 60% of your future voters feel betrayed by their governments,â Guterres told the gathering of world leaders. âWe need to prove to children and youth that despite the gravity of the situation, the world has a plan and governments are committed to implementing it. “
Rather than initiating a sentiment, Guterres clearly channeled one that already exists. Other world leaders, from Slovakia to the Maldives, from Latvia to Costa Rica, have adopted a similar conciliatory tone towards the estimated 1.8 billion human beings between the ages of 10 and 24 – a cohort that the Nations say United, is the largest generation of young people in the history of the world.
âA new generation has grown up over the past 30 years,â said Latvian President Egils Levits. âIn Latvia, as elsewhere, young people are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and misinformation. They want to build inclusive societies where people of all generations, backgrounds and communities can feel included, not only formally, but in practice. “
To this end, Guterres also announced the creation of a new United Nations Office for Youth to “bridge the generational gap” in global affairs. While details are scarce on the actual functions and budget of this new office, it is designed to tackle issues distinctly related to the activism of those aged 15-29, including climate change and inequality. in the world.
“If we’re going to ask ourselves what kind of world do we want to be, 15 to 29 is kind of the age that does,” said Connie Flanagan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies youth activism. âThese are the years when you take stock of your life. And as a result, you take stock of your world.
Flanagan said the United Nations must find a way to include young people in initiatives but not symbolize them, and in the process to harness the strengths of adolescents and young adults, who are generally less jaded by the pace of the world. change and more collaborative and willing to take care of this to happen.
âWhatever the motivation, it’s good that they want to stay relevant with young people,â said Flanagan. âIt is always difficult for people with power to relinquish power. “
The new office will be an extension of the work of the current UN Youth Envoy, which has grown slowly over the past decade, just as a generation of young people have created their online agency – earning awards. corporate contracts as entrepreneurs, developing loyal fans as artists and spearheading social movements, often using only their words, their charisma and their smartphone.
Current Envoy Designate Jayathma Wickramanayake said young luminaries like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg have brought mainstream visibility to the youth agenda, and social media has democratized the work of activism and what it does. means to influence public policies.
Yousafzai was a Pakistani schoolgirl when she was shot in the head for advocating for girls’ access to education, and Swede Thunberg has been an outspoken – and at times confrontational – force on climate change. Both were teenagers when they approached the United Nations with great fanfare in recent years.
By paving the way for other young people to tackle important issues, said Wickramanayake, the two have also helped to break down preconceptions that young people lack experience in dealing with world leaders and expertise. on issues such as education or the extremes of climate change.
âHaving these icons with truly global reach and also the power to reach the most powerful people in the world has destroyed those stereotypesâ¦ younger firm Guterres. She was first hired at 26, making her the youngest person to ever hold the most senior positions in the administration of the Secretary-General in United Nations history.
Sensitivity is spreading. In Denmark, a non-profit organization for children also summoned 20 âdelegatesâ aged 11 to 16 from around the world on Tuesday to present a manifesto to the United Nations. They called themselves the âChildren’s General Assemblyâ – an initiative sponsored in part by toy company Lego – and discussed a range of issues from children’s rights and bullying to refugees and to development goals.
âIf you really want to do something against (injustice) it has to start with you,â said Mankgara Maime, a 16-year-old girl from Johannesburg, South Africa, who participated in the presentation in Denmark. âYou can’t feel sorry for them and not think about how to help them. “
There is already evidence that this week could prove to be a milestone for the UN’s engagement with young people.
Nearly a million people watched the live broadcast of the UN YouTube channel on Monday to watch BTS discuss youth resilience, COVID-19 vaccines and the well-being of the Earth. As of today, this BTS clip – which could easily be mistaken for a UN promotional reel – has 16 million views on the same channel. The United Nations agency itself has only 1.7 million regular subscribers.
âI have heard that today’s teens and 20s are called the lost generation of COVID, that they have strayed at a time when they need the most diverse of opportunities,â said RM, the head of BTS, in their speech. “But I think it is a stretch to say that they are lost just because the paths they take cannot be seen by adult eyes.”
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