Peter Stearns

Youth and Human Rights: New Conversations

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The idea put forth by Daisaku Ikeda in his 2017 peace proposal of using human rights as a means of rousing elements of the world’s youth is an interesting one. In his view, encouraging youth to focus on human rights issues and ideas – developing what Kate Gilmore has described as a “human rights consciousness” – is an essential project, capable of steering young people away from conflict and violence while building a path toward the “pluralist and inclusive society” called for in the 2011 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training.

It is also timely, both in the sense of capitalizing on the upcoming seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR), and in generating new energy in the human rights domain after the setbacks of recent years through growing authoritarianism and the deflation of the Arab Spring. Mobilizing youth around human rights would encourage wider conversations across conventional national lines, improve the grasp of human rights themselves, and ultimately promote an international climate more conducive to peace.

I am intrigued by Mr. Ikeda’s proposal that a UN and civil society forum on human rights be held in 2018 as one way to mark the occasion of the UNHR’s seventieth anniversary. Two challenges emerge immediately, and both warrant comment. In the first place, the exciting idea of holding forums on human rights, including those involving youth, demands some careful parameters. Discussions based on national delegations, however selected, devoting their time to attacks on the human rights deficiencies of other regions, or sheer defensiveness about one’s own national human rights record, risk being worse than useless. Attacks and counterattacks may have some role in international diplomacy, but their limitations are obvious.

Rather, a new commitment to youth conversations must, as Mr. Ikeda has suggested, be predicated on the goals of expanding awareness of human rights among young people and generating positive agendas for the advancement of human rights in the future. A focus on specific human rights concerns of the youth cohort would already be a fresh departure. There should clearly be opportunities to discuss generational concerns about human rights criteria as well – for example, around issues of individual versus community goals. Proposals for improving human rights education, and incorporating human rights more fully into standard curricula, would be particularly welcome – where youth representatives would be in an ideal position to offer particular insights and enthusiasm.

The second challenge to the idea of a new series of international youth forums is organizational: how might idealism of this sort be translated into action? Aside from a potential launching pad, based on celebrations of the Charter in 2018, are there real opportunities for implementation?

And here, two thoughts. First: many people seem to have forgotten the serious impact of the periodic congresses on women’s rights, sponsored by the United Nations during every decade of the later twentieth century. These meetings called attention to gender issues in new ways, literally on an international scale; and they promoted as well a new set of regional associations devoted to women’s rights, which in turn had real outcomes in many parts of Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Obviously, this “year of the woman” movement did not solve all the problems involved. But it did arguably move the international discussion forward. And it provides one model for a set of periodic youth discussions of human rights, which might combine United Nations sponsorship with active support from the various international human rights NGOs and other groups.

And there is another intriguing possibility as well, that might overlap with the periodic “year of international youth” idea. Why not take advantage of the recurrent summer Olympic Games to generate a new, post-athletic but highly visible chance to discuss youth, human rights, and world peace? The Games in one sense have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of Baron de Coubertin back in the 1890s, in really capturing global attention. But they have also been tarnished by undue commercialism (which the Baron could not anticipate) and by excessive nationalism, where the founder himself had a blind spot. But the deficiencies might conceivably be used to motivate a new effort at compensation, a deliberately transnational conversation, widely publicized, potentially including some athlete representatives along with other youth delegates, aimed at the exploration and promotion of human rights. Arguably it is not too late to add this possibility to the efforts surrounding the 2020 games in Tokyo.

Human rights goals deserve the new energy that a deliberate youth mobilization might provide. The prospect requires some positive parameters. It might also inspire some imaginative organizational efforts that are well within the realm of possibility. Dr. Ikeda’s renewed plea deserves serious attention.

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Peter N. Stearns is Provost Emeritus and University Professor (in history) at George Mason University. A social historian, his many books include The Industrial Revolution in World History. From 1967 to 2016 he served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History.

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