25th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum 2023: Youth as actors of change for human rights – Remarks

EUSR Remarks

25th EU-NGO Human Rights Forum 2023: Youth as actors of change for human rights

Co-organisers: European External Action Service, European Commission (DG INTPA),

Human Rights and Democracy Network  

4 December 2023


Commissioner, Minister, good morning, everyone. It is a privilege to be with you today.

The focus of this year’s EU-NGO Forum on Human Rights is on young people as agents of change for human rights.  The times that we are living through call for urgency, new thinking and determined action, and those who do all of that at best are young people.

But permit me to talk a little from experience.  When I was 18, and that was a long time ago, I was in my second year of university, and my fellow students elected me as President of our University’s Student Union.  I did not realise at the time but it was the beginning of a journey through youth leadership, trade union work, local government, national parliament, government of my own country, leadership of my political party, and now here as the EU Special Representative for Human Rights.

This in fact will be the last occasion that I will address this Forum as the EUSR for Human Rights, and I think it is appropriate, that it is to reflect on the important and essential role of young people in our body politic and especially in the struggle for human rights.

At a time of great challenge, it is firstly, I think, important to recognise that, however slowly, change does happen.  Back then, when I was 18, my country, Ireland, had just become the ninth Member State of what would become the European Union.  Today, there are 3 times that number of Member States – 27, and we are seeking to grow to 37.

Back then, Ireland was the poorest of the Member States, and today it is one of the most prosperous countries in the world.  My country was also the most socially conservative Member State, but today it is one of the most liberal in the world, thanks to the efforts of all those who fought for human rights.  And back then, we were at war with each other, in a dirty sectarian conflict, and today we are one of the most peaceful countries on earth.

But my purpose here this morning and your purpose for the next 2 days is not to look back, but to face forward – to address the crises of today and the challenges of tomorrow.  Right now, our world is undergoing a seismic shift, not seen for generations.  Increasing inequality, precarious economic futures, authoritarianism, hate speech, disinformation, conflict and confrontation, climate change and technological transformation; the pushback on the human rights, which were hard-fought for over many generations, especially the rights of women.

Young people bring two essential elements to this conversation.  The first is that the future belongs to the young and certainly more so than to my generation.  And the second is that the young always see issues with the a clarity that has not yet been blunted by disappointment.  That is why young people everywhere can see clearly what the High Representative Josep Borrell recently said, “One horror can never justify another”.  And that nothing can ever justify the killing of innocent civilians, particularly children, and that that is no different, whether it occurs in Ukraine, Gaza, Israel, Ethiopia, Syria, or anywhere else where there is conflict in the world.

But everywhere there is conflict, it is to the young that the war makers first turn, to kill and to be killed.  And somehow societies are never quite so fast to involve young people in building the future, to treat young people as truly equal citizens, and above all, to share power with the young.  These two days are effort to somewhat correct that a little bit.  To draw young people and especially young human rights defenders into the decision-making process.

Time and again, we have the courageous mobilisation of young people on the front lines of some of the greatest human rights challenges.  We are seeing it in Iran, Hong Kong, Sudan, Afghanistan, Belarus, Uganda, Myanmar, and many more countries.  I saw it on this day just 2 weeks ago, when I visited Quibdó in Chocó on the Pacific coast of Colombia.  The majority of the population there is aged between 5 and 19.

Quibdó in recent years, has been one of the countries’ most violent cities, and Chocó is one of its poorest regions with the highest level of youth unemployment.  I met there with the recently elected new Governor of Chocó, a 32-year old young woman, and with the new Mayor of Quibdó, a young man around the same age.  And I also met with the Youth Council of Chocó; dynamic young people with the ideas and the energy, to lift their city and region, out of poverty, to free it from criminality, fear and violence, and to build the future.  But they need help and solidarity.  They need to know that we understand it and that we are willing to be flexible enough to make our support real.

The European Union does much to support young people working for human rights.  We support young human rights defenders through ProtectDefenders.EU.  In 2022, we started a dedicated youth campaign on the under the slogan #OurVoiceOurFuture.  We support human rights education, especially through the Global Campus for Human Rights, which is network of 100 universities across the world.

But we also need to hear from you, about what more we can do, and how we can do it better, and how we can do it together.  And we need to draw inspiration from those who drafted and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago.  And from the enormous progress that has followed since 1948.

Commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not just about is not just about looking back, we also have to think about where our world will be, and what will be the state of human rights, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks its centenary, just 25 years from now.  I hope I will still be around for it, most of you certainly will.  As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”.

Thank you very much.  Have a good Forum.