MAC promotes youth engagement in disarmament

Mines Action Canada's Program Coordinator, Erin Hunt, spoke at a briefing during the United Nations' General Assembly 1st Committee on engaging youth in nuclear disarmament.

Here is the text of her remarks:

Thank you for the kind introduction Anna. As mentioned, I work with Mines Action Canada. We, at MAC, have a long history of working with youth in disarmament issues.

While we work mostly on landmines and cluster munitions, I have had the honour of working with SGI, PAX, Reaching Critical Will, ICAN, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation on the International Youth Summit. Matt will talk more about the Summit and Youth Pledge but I would like to take a few minutes to share some reflections on youth engagement in nuclear disarmament and how we as civil society, states and the United Nations can foster more youth involvement.

Youth make up 25% of the global population and that figure is growing. Today’s youth are or will quickly be the ones sitting here in the United Nations and the ones making decisions back in capitals. At the moment, youth are often outside these discussions on nuclear disarmament but they have much to contribute to our work here. Youth have fresh energy and ideas that may help break the log jams slowing disarmament. As digital natives, youth are not only up to date with the changing world but they are the ones building it. Young people are the ones designing how we interact and how information is shared through technology. For example, the founders of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter were all youth at the time of their launch. In this rapidly changing and increasingly connected world, governments are working to become more open and to engage their citizens directly – two things the next generation expect from their leaders.

If we miss out on including the next generation, the world will be much poorer. Youth have expertise. Expertise that can contribute to achieving our shared goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons. Please do not confuse youth with inexperience or lack of expertise. Youth already involved in nuclear disarmament are usually passionate, and highly educated on the topic. In my experience, youth campaigners seek out knowledge to counter the tendency to dismiss young people as naïve and ill-informed. Once youth are involved, they often stay involved. For example, when I aged out of the youth category I had been involved in some type of disarmament advocacy for almost 11 years; I’ve met other youth who have been working on nuclear weapon issues since they were in high school or younger especially amongst impacted communities. Youth who are interested in health, human rights, the environment, disaster management and of course, international affairs can apply their expertise and contribute to nuclear disarmament.

For youth who want to become in engaged, the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons provides a less intimidating entry point. The threats that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and this planet are concepts that outsiders can understand without intensive education in security studies and cold war politics. The widespread involvement of civil society in the humanitarian initiative gives youth more opportunities to participate. Anyone who was in Oslo, Narayrit or Vienna could see that there were more youth there than you would see at a meeting here, at the NPT or at the Conference on Disarmament.

For the most part, getting young people interested in the issue is actually the easy part. Despite the “slacktivist” stereotype, youth want to contribute meaningfully to change. Youth want to see results so keeping youth engaged is more difficult and much of that has to do with how work on nuclear disarmament is done. That means we, as a disarmament community, need to examine our methods of work - as we currently operate it is difficult for youth to create change.

As civil society, we need to ensure that our new members, including (but not limited to) youth, have the opportunity to learn the information and the skills that will allow them to contribute. Perhaps that means a day or two of briefing prior to full participation in a prep-com or a meeting of states parties or maybe that is a mentorship program pairing new campaigners with experienced campaigners. We’ve had great success with a combination of mentorship and pre-event introductory briefings at landmine and cluster munitions meetings. Youth have learned quickly and contributed to the campaign’s work while also gaining experience that helps them stand out when they entering the workforce. In preparation for today, I surveyed some leading youth campaigners and mentorship was identified as the most important factor in keeping them active on the issues. Campaigners who got their international advocacy start with a combination of training and mentorship are now delivering statements on behalf of the campaigns and mentoring the next generation of campaigners in their countries

Civil society is not alone in needing to take action to ensure that youth can contribute meaningfully to disarmament work. States and the United Nations have a role as well. Very little about nuclear disarmament discussions at the international level is youth friendly. Traditional disarmament forums lack space for youth. Instead, these forums are characterized by limited civil society engagement, diplo-speak and jargon, technical explanations and almost incomprehensible machinery moving at a glacial pace. Since most of these structures and processes have decades or century old roots I don’t expect massive changes overnight to allow for more youth involvement, but there are some things that can be done now.
Civil society participation can be increased in all disarmament forums – this really shouldn’t be a controversial suggestion. At the national level, parliamentarians and other decision makers can increase their availability to young people in person and online. Youth representatives can be included in government delegations internationally – we see this in other areas of international work but not as much in disarmament. Digital diplomacy is a good tool for increasing youth access to disarmament forums. Funding can be provided to allow youth to take part in disarmament activities be it 1st committee, the NPT or meetings outside the UN system as full participants – that might need to include training or briefing costs as well as the cost of actually being at the meeting (disarmament tends to happen in expensive cities that are out of reach for many young people). In my experience, youth engagement projects like thata have a large impact for a very small resource investment. These small changes to how disarmament is done may help open space for young people to get involved and to contribute to nuclear abolition.

Changes will need to be made to how nuclear disarmament is done not only to facilitate youth engagement but also to help adapt nuclear disarmament discussions to the 21st century. In many ways disarmament and international security discussions have not kept pace with changing society. Youth seem to be embracing the idea of our shared humanity – the world needs to change because it doesn’t reflect our shared humanity. Youth want to see more diversity among decision-makers and have more access to those decision-makers. A generation raised with limitless access to information and instant global communication expect to be able to know what is going on as it happens and to be able to communicate directly with decision makers. The idea that decisions about weapons that could eliminate all life on the planet are being made behind closed doors without consultation with the next generation does not fit into the globalized, connected, open, transparent and humane world youth are building. We are going to have to change how this work is done or the next generation will simply bypass what they see as outdated models of working in favour of new forums and ways of working that include them and their values.

As you will hear from Matt, youth around the world are taking action in pursuit of nuclear disarmament and ready to contribute more. With youth making up 25% of the global population and growing, we can’t afford to keep youth out of the conversation.