Debunking Diplomacy and What it Means to be Official: The Power of Youth Diplomacy

Ramiz Bakhtiar, Founder of the Network of Former Youth Delegates to the United Nations, Afghanistan/Canada

The international community is scrambling to win without war, stop military takeovers, resolve conflicts peacefully, and create consensus over global issues such as climate change, COVID-19, and the rise of authoritarianism. Many official diplomatic efforts (Track-one Diplomacy) have failed only in the past 6 months. The fallout of the U.S-Taliban Peace Agreement and the breakout of war in Ukraine are two devastating examples of the cost of diplomatic failure. These negotiations have been too official, top-down, and exclusive of youth. Negotiation is the soul of diplomacy, but when it’s not inclusive, its chances of success decline significantly.     

In 2018, I was selected as the first-ever Afghan Youth Representative to the United Nations. My journey towards youth leadership started several years ago, when I joined the Emerging Civil Society Leaders program, a network of aspiring community leaders from across Afghanistan, and the Friedrich-Ebert- Stiftung Young Leaders Forum, a multidisciplinary program on youth’s social and political engagement at local, regional, and global levels.

After my selection as the UN Youth Representative, I conducted a nationwide consultation process with hundreds of young Afghans, and policymakers with the goal of bridging the gap among decision-makers and young leaders on the ground. Afterwards, I traveled to New York and spoke at the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly. I addressed world leaders on behalf of 65% of the Afghan population who are war-weary and ready to work with the world to free Afghanistan from war. I met with some of the world’s most seasoned diplomats, including Permanent UN Ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, and heads of international organizations.    

During the 73rd UN General Assembly, I had the good fortune of meeting and working with my fellow UN Youth Representatives from different countries — all like-minded, young leaders who believe in partnership, cooperation, peace, and justice. We organized side events and shared panel discussions on youth-related issues. Our interactions were friendly and open, creating space for trust and understanding — something that official diplomats struggle to achieve. I established a broad network of young leaders from all over the world during my participation in the U.N. These individuals and their unique experiences gave me a look into what went right and wrong in their countries and why. 

Unlike traditional beliefs that limit diplomacy merely to intergovernmental interactions, I believe in an evolving idea and practice of diplomacy. A key element of this evolution is the role of young people participating in diplomacy and foreign affairs in informal and unofficial capacities.

When my mandate at the UN ended, I noticed a lack of mechanisms to keep the UN Youth Delegates engaged and active. Thousands of these delegates did not have an avenue to work together and continue their activism for a sustainable impact. As a result of this gap, the huge potential was largely wasted.

After weeks of deliberations with 100 former and acting UN Youth Delegates from 40+ countries, the UN Youth Representative of Georgia, and I founded the global Network of Former Youth Delegates to the United Nations organization in August 2020. It’s exceptional and unprecedented to include “the United Nations” in our organization’s name — a formal authorization we obtained after continued negotiations with the General Legal Division of the U.N. 

Our organization has not only mobilized and united UN Youth Delegates to work together for a shared vision, but also our organization has reached thousands of young people around the world.  

One of the Network of Former Youth Delegates to the United Nations project’s is entitled Youth in Diplomacy Talks. The Youth in Diplomacy Talks project is a series of talks in front of a public audience between former and current UN Youth Delegates and former and present UN Ambassadors. The purpose of these talks is to encourage the UN to meaningfully incorporate youth in decision-making processes, an idea in line with the United Nations Youth Strategy. This strategy underpins the role of young people as partners in achieving global sustainable development, peace, security, and international human rights. The Youth in Diplomacy Talks has featured the UN Permanent Ambassadors of Georgia, Canada, Ukraine, Israel, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Antigua, Barbuda, and Denmark. 

Although including youth in diplomacy is not common practice in international politics, it’s effective and it’s needed today more than ever. Young people play a constructive role in people-to-people engagement and cooperation, and influence policies and decisions that affect their present and have implications for their futures. Sure, official state representatives have more resources and assets at their disposal, but young people have larger audiences, higher engagement, and more outreach tactics. Official diplomats use formal influence while young people use informal influence via social media to reach a larger audience and garner support for their ideas and proposals.  

When the Taliban captured Kabul and a full-scale humanitarian crisis unfolded in August 2021, my team and I wrote an Open Letter to the United Nations Secretary General calling for the protection of youth and children in Afghanistan. Our open letter was endorsed by 20 organizations and signed by 150 human rights and youth activists from 38+ countries. In November, we received a response from the Secretary General’s Executive Office, and were  pleased to know that our open letter contributed to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution appointing a special rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan. 

Also, after witnessing Russian aggression in Ukraine, former and current UN Youth Delegates published a Statement on Ukraine condemning Russia’s invasion and calling for international solidarity with the people of Ukraine — mainly the youth of Ukraine which comprises over 50% of the country’s population, and who are now facing a brutal onslaught that is killing their present and their future. 

I firmly believe that countries and nations should be able to resolve their conflicts without going to war with each other, and it’s the responsibility of the next generation of diplomats, influencers, and leaders to ensure that diplomacy wins over war. There is no alternative to peace and diplomacy.  

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change.                

Driving Change

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