Youth joy at the UN - Giggling through the Human Rights Council
By Lisa Philippo, Youth Advocate
Why should young people engage with the United Nations? I had heard a lot about the very formal and bureaucratic nature of UN spaces, which are often completely inaccessible to young people. These difficulties in engaging with the UN made it even more special to be able to join CHOICE for Youth and Sexuality as a Youth Advocate to the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. I was fortunate to be supported by two very experienced and knowledgeable CHOICErs who not only helped me navigate this space, but made the whole experience filled with youth joy and fun!
At the end of my first week at the HRC, some of the stories I had heard in advance were confirmed, while many new experiences took me by surprise, changing my initial view of the UN. I can certainly confirm that it is a very bureaucratic space, where progress is slow and 'new' ideas seem to lag about ten years behind progress in society. Nevertheless, it remains a special and empowering experience to be in a single room with representatives of over 100 states who, however slow and inaccessible, are speaking with each other to achieve an agreement with global impact.
Watching these interactions unfold and develop right in front of us showed me that despite the slow progress, we are still moving in the right direction. Although tied to bureaucratic processes and often obstructed, the UN has had an independent expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) for a few years now, while some member states would rather not recognize that gender exists. Many of the resolutions (political commitments) that were discussed at the HRC included or even centered around gender, making it a clearly non-negotiable term. While many delegates from conservative countries will continue to attempt to roll back this process, the positive part of the bureaucratic dinosaur that is the UN is that regressions also will not happen with any foreseeable speed.
While the UN may not be the space where advocacy directly has the biggest immediate impact, it still is a very important foundation for change. When the UN adopts and ratifies progressive language, can be used by activists, organizations, and local governments worldwide. It shows that all states that sign the resolution understand the importance of the discussed issues like child marriage and violence against women and girls. This recognition gives our causes more credibility and makes them more powerful.
As you may have noticed, there are quite some paradoxes to getting involved with the UN, yet I already cannot wait to return to Geneva. This is primarily because of how empowering it can be to exist and work in these ‘youth unfriendly’ spaces as a young person. In general, the reactions to our presence at the UN are varied, ranging from some older actors underestimating us due to our youth, to young diplomats finding solace in our approachability and enthusiasm.
Being young in a space that is not at all youth friendly makes the celebrations we experience here all the more special. When we took the opportunity to provide delegates with a (youth-friendly) policy brief on bodily autonomy -an important right that few delegates seemed to grasp- it was electrifying to hear delegates repeat the words that we had written, using our work as argumentation for more progressive language. This underlines that when you have the expertise, age is irrelevant, and your voice is just as strong as anyone else’s.
Perhaps this is what scares ‘adult’ professionals when they see young people behaving fearlessly in these intimidating spaces, because it is only the beginning of how powerful we can become.