The Youth's Voice at the United Nations
In an exclusive interview with The Metric, German UN Youth Delegate for Sustainable Development Rebecca Freitag and German Youth Delegate to the General Assembly Josephine Hebling give unique insights into their time at the United Nations.
After Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future Movement has motivated thousands of people around the globe to stand up for climate action, it has become pretty clear that the youth can make a change in the political sphere. However, Thunberg is not the only person being active for the future of young generations. Rebecca Freitag, German UN Youth Delegate for Sustainable Development and Josephine Hebling, German Youth Delegate to the UN General Assembly, were both part of the Delegations which represented Germany at the UN Climate Action Summit and the 74th meeting of the General Assembly, giving a voice to the youth.
Wanting to make a positive impact in her local community: that’s how Rebecca’s journey to becoming an activist for sustainability started. Rebecca is the co-founder of the initiative “Fahrrad Bande”, a program designed to mobilize citizens of Berlin to choose their bicycles over less climate-friendly means of transportation. During a school exchange in Egypt, Rebecca realized that similar issues can be found in various places and thus need to be tackled at the global level. This experience encouraged her to apply for the UN Youth delegate program. Like Rebecca, Josephine had already been active prior to becoming a Youth Delegate: she has twice spoken at the United Nations in Geneva on the topic of children’s rights and participation. It has always been her thing to stand up for young people, she says.
The Youth Delegate Program to the General Assembly has been launched in over 30 countries with the purpose of giving young people a voice at the United Nations. Youth delegates are elected for a period of one year during which they travel to New York and attend the General Assembly Session as part of their country’s official delegation. The highlight of the program is the presentation of a speech in the third committee. Josephine and her co-delegate Nikolas became youth delegates in March 2019, after successfully completing a competitive application process. Once elected into office, the two college students started their journey by interning at the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs and met with several politicians to discuss the issue of youth participation. During the months before the General Assembly, Josephine and Nikolas went on a tour around Germany meeting with the German Youth to identify the most pressing issues young people were concerned about. They visited schools, youth associations but also unusual facilities such as a youth prison. “We wanted to listen to those who are usually not heard.” The demands collected along their journey would afterwards form the basis for their speech in New York. Throughout their tour, the two youth delegates collected over 3000 demands, while climate change and education were the ones that came up the most.
Similar to Josephine, Rebecca and her co-delegate Felix too represented the Youth’s voice at the United Nations, however, with a specific focus on sustainable development. Rebecca started her two year term as German Youth delegate for Sustainable Development in November 2017. Until today, she has attended several UN summits, such as the UN Environment Assembly or the ECOSOC Youth Forum. Being in close contact with the German youth and educating them on the topic of sustainable development has been an important aspect for Rebecca, as well. The Youth Delegate describes her time in office as extremely diverse and highlights the importance of including young people into important decisions.
“The younger generations are dramatically affected by the consequences of climate change, however, they are often the ones whose voice is not being heard.”
Rebecca and Felix time in New York started by attending Greta Thunberg’s climate strike which had been organized prior to the UN Climate Action Summit. Afterwards, a series of events followed starting with the Youth Climate Summit, a platform for young climate activists to present their solutions to the United Nations. On September 23, the main UN Climate Action Summit took place at the United Nations. The goal of the summit was to strengthen climate action and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Summit was attended by Heads of State and Government as well as climate activists and the private sector. The UN climate action Summit was followed by the SDG summit, the summit most relevant to Rebecca and Felix office. The SDG summit held on September 24 and 25 was the first UN summit that reviewed the progress made on the implementation of the Agenda 2030 since it came into force. The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by world leaders in 2015. The Agenda 2030 demonstrates a plan of action with the aim to eradicate poverty in all its dimensions. Throughout the whole week, Rebecca and Felix accompanied the official German Delegation to all important events. They gave statements to the press and organized several side events on the SDGs with other youth delegates. The Youth Delegates met with UN officials and politicians such as Germany’s Minister of Environment, Svenja Schulze, who Rebecca made sign the Youth Pledge, a pact guaranteeing the inclusion of the youth into climate decision making.
All in for Climate Action
The Youth Climate Summit further served as a platform to hand over signatures to the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed which Rebecca had gathered throughout her campaign All in for Climate Action. All in for climate action had been founded four months before the summit as a call for action to heads of State and Government by young climate activists from around the world who all had the same goal: to prevent the mean global temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The aim of the campaign was to globally gather signatures and petitions until the beginning of the Climate Summit. All in for climate action became big very fast. Until the start of the summit, the campaign gathered over 1.5 million signatures and 90 petitions.
A few weeks later Josephine and Nikolas travelled to New York to attend the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. While not exclusively, climate change was also a big topic during the General Assembly, says Josephine. The highlight of the two youth delegates’ three-week stay in New York was the presentation of their speech in the third General Assembly Committee. Josephine explains that the first part of their speech was dedicated to the experiences made while touring Germany. When talking to the German Youth, they realized that many young people are not used to being listened to. Ultimately, strengthening youth participation is an important aspect. In the second part of their speech the youth delegates presented the main demands collected from the German youth, being climate change, education and youth participation. Next to their attendance of third committee meetings, Josephine and Nikolas participated in several side events and workshops organized by youth delegates from various other countries. The two German Youth Delegates were in charge of organizing three of these workshops, one being on the common statement, a paper signed by all youth delegates summarizing each country’s policy priorities. Furthermore, all youth delegates were invited to amend the youth resolution, a draft which is discussed in the third committee every other year. The third committee, however, would not be the only time were Josephine got to speak. After all youth delegates had unified their voices into one speech, Josephine had the honor to present that speech to UN Secretary General António Guterres.
Lots of hope but little action
When asked Rebecca and Josephine about their impressions of the effectiveness of the summits, Rebecca admits that the main climate summit did not at all reflect the feelings and emotions of the youth climate summit held the previous day.
“There was a great difference between both summits – an intergenerational exchange between youth delegates and regular representatives did not happen.”
It was furthermore frustrating that most Heads of State and Government, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, left right after the Climate Action Summit and did not even attend the following SDG summit. However, Rebecca believes that the Fridays for Future movement did cause a reaction at the United Nations and more progress on climate action has been promised for the future. Though, it is notable that the states with the most ambitious plans at the Climate Action Summit were small states. The big global players such as Russia and the United States did not speak. Overall, a more positive picture was created by the private sector rather than the country delegations: over 90 pledges that promise the implementation of sustainable business models had been signed during the summit. Great discrepancies between states could also be observed when it came to letting the youth participate. Some countries don’t want their youth to have a say in politics, says Josephine.
Josephine adds that in the case of Germany one needs to distinguish between the proposals made at the international level and the policies made at the national level. During the last months, the German government had constantly been criticized for its climate policies. After thousands of Germans had been protesting for more climate, the government released a new climate package which has since been described as too weak by experts and protesters. However, Josephine explains that at the UN level Germany is one of the most active countries, motivating others to engage in climate action.
“There is a discrepancy between what happens at the national level compared to the international level. Germany will lose its credibility, if the government’s actions continuously do not reflect the proposals made at the international level.”
Josephine admits that she did not always feel taken seriously by regular delegates. “Sometimes I felt like I was only there for the picture.” Though, she did have some positive experiences. The youth delegate explains that the German Ambassador once included her ideas into his speech at the Security Council on the topic of “Silencing the Guns in Africa”.
When asked about whether the youth delegates believe that there is still a realistic chance to reach the goals of the Agenda 2030, Rebecca says that five years have already gone by since the implementation and there is not much time left. First results at the SDG summit revealed that while there has been small progress in some areas there have been backlashes in others, one example being the rise of people suffering from hunger since the implementation of the Agenda 2030. Nevertheless, Rebecca believes there is still hope. Movements such as Fridays for Future show how fast the society can be activated. Such a movement would need to happen for the SDGs, as well. In her opinion, progress can only be made if we keep spreading awareness and show what we stand for.
After two years of being UN Youth Delegate for Sustainable Development, Rebecca’s time in office soon comes to an end. In the future, Rebecca will become an ambassador at the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations to continue her activism for sustainable development. Josephine will still be in office until next year. Since she came back from the General Assembly, she has been spending her time giving press statements about her stay at the United Nations and most importantly, revisiting those young people she had spoken to before the conference to report which of their demands were presented at the United Nations. In February, Josephine will once more return to New York to speak at the United Nations Commission for Social Development and once more represent the voice of the youth.
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