Every year, this Global Colloquium addresses some of the most pressing issues facing our world.
I have been honoured to join you a number of times so I know how dynamic this forum is – and how much you can achieve. Thank you for having me back.
I am especially happy that this year we will be talking about youth with youth. I look forward to a dialogue today.
This beautiful rotunda has seen many dramatic events, including the protests back in 1968.
I am not endorsing those protests, but I remember the time well. I was 23, and I was also protesting, on the other side of the world, in Korea.
The circumstances were different. But in both cases, young people were seeking change.
I mention this because when we talk about youth, we have to look beyond demographics to why young people are so powerful. Youth are often the first to stand against injustice. Youth is a time of idealism. Young people are a force for transformation. These are timeless qualities. But today’s younger generation has a new advantage. You have the Internet.
As a child, when I first saw a television, I put my hand on the screen because I was fascinated. Now, when my granddaughter sees a TV, she puts her hand on the screen because she expects it to respond to her commands. Young people are using social networking to drastically alter power dynamics. Some dictators in our world are more afraid of tweets than they are of opposing armies. Young people are using Facebook and Twitter to organize protests, speak out against human rights abuses, and end oppression. I wholeheartedly welcome this.
At the University of Kansas, students are designing social media strategies for United Nations campaigns that we are going to send to all of our offices around the world. And those students are going to create a flashmob on campus to promote interest in the United Nations. I wish I could be there!
Young people everywhere deserve the power to get information, connect and ask hard questions – about justice, equality and opportunity.
Our job is to listen to youth and answer their calls.
Today, I brought you some messages we gathered from young people on social justice and decent work. One was concerned about her future. Maybe this sounds familiar. She said: “You graduate from a good university, you passed with flying colours and yet you do not have opportunities. There you wonder: what went wrong?”
Another young woman said: “With lack of money, poverty and hunger, it is very difficult to keep your dreams alive.”
And a young man said: “If I sit around I’m wasting my time, but I feel like even if I’m looking for a job I’m still wasting my time. So I don’t know what to do anymore.”
I share these voices of youth because we cannot just make speeches saying we should listen to young people – we have to actually hear from them. But this is a dialogue, so I also want to share some of what I have learned from the university presidents in this room.
Yes – I have read your papers!
You describe youth as “a social challenge.”
You stress “the significance of youth empowerment to the prosperity of the nation.” And you acknowledge that “access to higher education is not an automatic guarantee of having access to work.” Maybe if I put footnotes in my speech you will give me an A. But actually I would prefer an E, because that is the letter I want you to remember.
Today I will speak about three E’s: Education, Employment and Empowerment.
Education is key to progress.
I am often asked about the experience of my own country, Korea. People want to know the secret to Korea’s remarkable development. In a relatively short period of time, we went from being devastated by war to being one of the world’s strongest economies.
Without hesitation, I say: “Our secret is education.”
Korea wisely invested in education early on. That gave the country a knowledgeable, skilled workforce by the time the industrialization phase took off. Korea continued investing in education, and this continued to pay great returns in prosperity, stability and happiness. Around the world, countries are bringing more children into classrooms. But still, more than 125 million young people cannot read or write.
Two thirds of all illiterate people are women. This is a problem for those millions of individuals. But it is also our problem. Because when we hold women back, we hurt progress for all people.
I am convinced – and I say this everywhere I go – that investing in education for girls and women is the key to unlocking advances across society. That is why I have made education one of my top priorities in the next five years.
We especially have to focus on girls. A girl who never gets the opportunities she deserves is one less scientist discovering a breakthrough … one less peacemaker negotiating ceasefires … and one less university president helping to shape a better future. The United Nations is working to get more girls in schools. We have to address gender inequality – and we have to look at other injustices.
Migrants, persons with disabilities, refugees and other marginalized young people struggle just to go to class. Learning can be a matter of life or death – especially when it comes to information on reproductive health. Every minute and a half, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. Many of them are just teenagers. Their lives could be saved with the right information and supplies. Every minute somewhere in the world, a young woman is infected with HIV. Until they develop a vaccine for the virus, the best protection is education. Last year, I went to health clinics in Nigeria and Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. I saw first-hand the value of educating women to provide care for the community in the community.
The second E is employment.
There are nearly 74 million young people who are jobless in our world. I was in Baghdad last week for a meeting of the Arab League. The unrest in North Africa and the Middle East was driven partly by the lack of opportunity and freedom. In the next decade, Arab countries need to create 50 million jobs for new people joining the workforce. The Arab Awakening was a season of hope and expectation. At the time, I told the region’s leaders: listen to your people. They were not only talking about democracy. Many young people were looking for a better future with decent jobs and decent pay. Millions of youth work in unsafe conditions. They have no benefits, no job security and limited rights. Young people may be resilient, but they should never be exploited. The opposite: we should be doing everything possible to encourage their potential.
The United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) will hold a conference this year on youth employment. Scores of young people will be there to face problems and to find solutions. Beyond conferences, we need action to create development that is rich in jobs for young people.
Youth deserve an education and employment. But every young person also needs empowerment. This is my third “E”.
To unleash the power of young people, we need to partner with them. This is what the United Nations is trying to do. We are developing an action plan for the coming years. We want to work with youth on major issues affecting them, including joblessness, political inclusion, human rights and sexual health. I have also decided to appoint a Special Advisor on Youth. After I made the announcement, youth organizations with 100 million members wrote me a letter. They said: “It is up to you to prove that the UN’s commitment to empower young people is what you believe in and what you are striving for!” I take these words very seriously. We want youth to be part of our upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create future we want.
To the students I say: what is the future you want? Think about it. Ask your friends. Bring your ideas to the UN. Get engaged. This is your moment, All the issues at stake in Rio – climate change, the scarcity of water, food and energy, and the health of our planet. At Rio we will try to marshal a global movement for the future we want. To the university presidents among you, I ask for your partnership. Consider joining the United Nations Academic Impact, an initiative that brings higher education and the UN system together. Above all, train your students to think globally, to inspire your students to go out in the world, and to work not only for the betterment of their own country but the betterment of all humankind.
In an era where social inequalities are growing, we need to build resilience and equality. And the way to do that is to help youth and women. Ladies and gentlemen, old and young, but especially old, I have spoken today about youth because I believe we can change what is often called a ‘population explosion’ into a global transformation. But let me say a word to the elders in the room. After all, I am one of you. It is fashionable to say, “Youth is a state of mind.” People like this expression because it implies that we can always be young. It is a kind of consolation. But I would frame it differently. “Youth is a state of mind,” is not a consolation – it is a challenge.
Youth are idealistic and brave. They do not cower to authority. I am not young. But I recently had the chance to speak about an issue where too many people have been silent: The terrible violence and discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Last month, we had the first ever formal UN debate on this issue. Like many people of my generation, I did not grow up talking about sexual orientation – but I learned to speak out because lives are at stake. Delegates from some 50 countries walked out in protest. They did not want the Council to even discuss the issue.
But my message to them is up on YouTube, and I hope they hear it. After I spoke up for my beliefs, I received great praise from some and brutal criticism from others. But my response to both was the same: human rights are human rights. I am not in this job just for the easy issues where everyone already agrees. My point is we can all be young in our attitude. The determination to right wrongs that drives young people can motivate all of us. All of you in this room today know this. All of you in this room share these values and virtues. I look forward to hearing from you on how we can advance together.