Multilateralism needs a facelift

The multilateral system is in urgent need of a facelift.

By Yusra Suedi*

It is no secret that multilateralism has recently been under fire. While many criticisms may be invoked and many remedies put forward to reform the multilateral system, this piece focuses on just one: it needs a facelift.
There are 1.8 billion people between 10 and 24 years old living in the world today – the largest young generation in history. In 2030, it is estimated that half of the world’s population will be under 30. And yet, in multilateral contexts, international decisions impacting the future of today’s youth are taken by their elders. Recent events would suggest that young people must ferociously tweet behind their screens and march in the streets to generate serious attention on issues they care about.

The Security Council recognizes the importance of youth

The UN has recognized the value of youth empowerment. The position of Special Envoy for Youth, currently occupied by Jayathma Wickramanayake, was created in 2013. On 24 September 2018, Secretary-General António Guterres presented the “Youth 2030” Strategy aiming to intensify global, regional, and national measures to meet the youth’s needs. The UN promotes “Youth Ambassadors“ and “Youth Volunteers” programs and its Department for Economic and Social Affairs prioritizes youth issues in its work. Some institutions in the UN system, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) or the International Labour Organization (ILO), have elaborate programs in response to youth issues related to development and unemployment respectively. Even certain UN Security Council resolutions have recognized the importance of youth in the realization of the UN’s objectives.

But is the UN ready to act?

While all of this is commendable, more can be done. The question is: is the UN ready to give the youth a seat at the negotiation table? You may tell me that young people can do so as diplomats, but they would be representing their governments and thus be acting under instruction. You could also point out that they could infiltrate into NGOs defending their interests and thus take part in discussions in the Human Rights Council of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), both inclusive of civil society. But this participation would be constrained to these UN fora alone. You may even point out that the UN already gives young people the opportunity to partake in a government delegation in the Third Committee of the General Assembly and in technical commissions in the ECOSOC. But such participation is only warranted where traditional youth issues – such as youth unemployment or education – are being discussed.

A seat at the negotiation table

What about giving the youth a seat at the negotiation table in all UN fora – not only those directly touching upon youth issues? This will guarantee that all contemporary international issues – directly affecting their future – may also be approached from their point of view. Climate change is a classic example: it is not a youth issue in the traditional sense of the term but yields significant importance for youth who will suffer the repercussions later in their lives. Greta Thunberg was invited to share youth perspectives in many multilateral fora: the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP24), the UN General Assembly, and the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But should young people have to make so much effort to be heard? Shouldn’t they form an integral part of all issues that justify multilateralism to begin with? While they undoubtedly care about their education and employment opportunities, I’m sure they’d have a thing or two to say about water security, international conflicts, or nuclear disarmament – things that all nations, shouldering the largest young generation in history – should prioritize.

Our world is far too connected to consider an alternative to multilateralism; no country can solve the world’s problems alone. And faced with increasing criticism and skepticism, one way to increase its credibility in the eyes of an increasingly concerned generation is to bolster its full-fledged integration. The UN Secretary-General recently stated: “I want the UN to become a leader in working with young people: in understanding their needs, in helping to put their ideas into action, in ensuring their views inform our processes.”

What better way to do this than to make room at the table? What better birthday present to offer the 74-year-old multilateral forum than a facelift?

*Yusra Suedi is a PhD candidate in Public International Law and Instructor in International Relations at the University of Geneva.