Generation Z(ero): Young advocates share ideas for youth engagement in a side event to the UN General Assembly First Committee

November 1st, 2023

On Monday, 23 October 2023, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) hosted a side event on the margins of the First Committee on the role of youth in advancing Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control (DNA). Moderated by Ms. Soo Hyun Kim, Political Affairs Officer,  and Ms. Marykate Monaghan, Youth Outreach Consultant with ODA’s flagship initiative #Youth4Disarmament, the side event included a group of its “Leaders to the Future”, United Nations staff, as well as government and civil society representatives.  

With generous financial support from the Government of the Republic of Korea, the #Leaders2Future travelled to the United Nations Headquarters to share their insights with stakeholders as part of a five-day study visit. Over 40 participants attended the in-person event, including representatives from Member States, local universities, and civil society. 

Mr. Adedeji Ebo, Director and Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, provided opening remarks. He highlighted that exchanges led by youth are vital for the demystification of disarmament. “Everyone, everywhere, has a role to play,” he emphasized. Noting the diversity and gender parity in the room, Mr. Ebo further asserted that “youth” are not a homogenous group, but rather individuals bringing different views and approaches to the table. Such “cross-fertilization of perspectives” is, according to Mr. Ebo, crucial for the advancement of disarmament. 

H.E. Mr. Sangjin Kim, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, underscored the urgent need for youth voices to be heard. He further spotlighted the Resolution to be tabled by his country in the General Assembly titled “Youth, disarmament and non-proliferation” which stresses the importance of capacity building and disarmament education of youth.

H.E. Mr. Sangjin Kim providing his remarks.

Mr. Matías Andrés Eustathiou de los Santos, Vice-chair of the UNGA First Committee, addressed the young attendees about overcoming barriers in their professional lives. “Work hard. Dream big. And do not let anybody undermine your thoughts and ideas,” he shared. Furthermore, the Vice-chair condemned global nuclear weapon spending, and suggested the money could instead be invested into projects advancing sustainability. 

Beginning the panel discussion, Ms. Naomi Ekpoki, one of the #Leaders2Future participants, emphasised the lack of partnerships, support and inclusion as significant barriers faced by young people. “We need to bring disarmament all the way to the grassroots level,” she insisted, referring to her personal experience with conflict in her community. “One does not need a specific degree to be an expert on the topic of conflict,” she added. 

Ms. Naomi Ekpoki emphasized the lack of partnerships with youths.

Ms. Kekhashan Basu, Founder and President of the Green Hope Foundation, underlined that nuclear disarmament should not be viewed as a solely “adult topic.” In her perspective, the current framework allows a small group of people to dominate the ongoing dialogue on nuclear weapons , she shared, labelling the situation as “nuclear colonialism.” Finally, Ms. Basu shared that the nuclear disarmament field could learn from the climate movement. “Catalyst of change is education,” she underlined, stressing that “education gives one the power to act.” 

Mr. Joon Baek, #Leader2Future participant, shared his personal story of being a soldier based at the Demilitarized Zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea. “While on duty, I would dream of a nuclear-weapon-free Korean peninsula,” he disclosed.  Reflecting on his experiences working with civil society organisations and the private sector, Mr. Baek noted that “a lot of change is happening outside of the UN walls.” As such, he emphasised that it would be crucial to include perspectives from multiple stakeholders when addressing uncertainties posed by the development of new and emerging technologies. 

Mr. René Holbach, Political Affairs Officer, Science, Technology Unit of UNODA, followed on the topic of challenges regarding new technologies. Specifically, Mr. Holbach discussed the “dual potential” of such advancements. “Some may be transforming the nature of conflict and warfare, but also improving lives,” he shared, further noting that traditional disarmament approaches may not work for emerging technologies due to that dual nature. Finally, Mr. Holbach touched upon nuclear weapons as well, pointing out that the only definite prevention to their use is their total elimination. 

Mr. Percy Abain, #Leader2Future participant and artist, discussed ways to bring people together to advance peace. He presented his project to engage local communities on peace through music. However, Mr. Abain noted the need for further investment to maximise the impact and outreach of projects created by young people. 

Ms. Lia Holla,  #Leader2Future participant, added that “1.8 billion people today are youth, yet [they] are underrepresented in security spaces,” despite having relevant expertise to offer. To support young people in these efforts, Ms. Holla emphasized the need to institutionalize efforts for meaningful youth engagement and empowerment. “Work with us,” she invited the participants. 

On that note, Ms. Emilia Harriet Hannuksela, Team Lead, Youth, Peace and Security, Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, reminded participants of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which urges stakeholders to increase representation of youth in decision-making processes. “The Youth, Peace and Security Agenda cannot be seen in a silo,” she concluded her remarks, emphasizing that youth inclusion is a crucial part of the UN peace and security framework. 

The panel was followed by a lively discussion with the audience focusing on the next steps for youth inclusion. “It is not about adding young people, it is about truly including them,” commented a young attendee. Another student further noted that today’s youth are “incredible mobilizers through social media.” Ms. Naomi Ekpoki further mentioned that community action is crucial when reaching more youths, and Mr. Adedeji Ebo concluded the panel encouraging all youths to “feel confident questioning the status quo.” 

For more information on the Leaders to the Future Series, please visit the dedicated webpage. 

The participants enjoyed a lively debate focusing on the next steps in youth engagement.

Finally, in her closing remarks, Ms. Radha Day, Chief of the Regional Disarmament, Information and Outreach Branch, UNODA, followed up on the topic of “next steps” and meaningful youth inclusion by announcing the Call for Applications for the second edition of the United Nations Youth Champions for Disarmament programme – an innovative learning programme aimed at empowering youth to work for disarmament in their communities.

Ms. Radha Day discussing youth inclusion at UNODA.