A high level United Nations youth conference has taken place in New York under the shadow cast by Friday’s deadly attack on a political youth camp in Norway.
The two-day conference, which focused on the theme of “Youth: Dialogue and Mutual Understanding”, concluded on Tuesday. It marked the climax of the UN International Year of Youth, which ends on August 11.
The event began on a sombre note when the hundreds of participants from all over the world observed a minute’s silence in memory of the more than 70 victims of the Norwegian bombing and shooting attacks. Most of the victims had been attending a youth camp connected to the ruling Labour Party.
Assembly President Joseph Deiss, a former Swiss cabinet minister, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the atrocities and expressed their sympathy and solidarity with the people of Norway.
“This tragedy also reminds us that young people throughout the world are too often the victims of all possible forms of violence,” said Deiss. “They are caught up in conflicts, their lives are threatened by extreme living conditions, such as the drought and famine which Somalia is currently experiencing.”
“I am particularly saddened that this murderer singled out young people keen to engage meaningfully in the future of their country,” said Ban. “This atrocity stands in stark opposition to the theme of this meeting, which is dialogue and mutual understanding.”
The Norwegian youth delegate, Jon Andre Hvoslef-Eide, told swissinfo.ch that he greatly appreciated the words of Deiss and Ban, as well as the fact that Norway’s UN representative had been allowed to address the meeting. The minute’s silence had moved him.
He said he had been helped by the expressions of solidarity he had received. It was difficult, he said, to leave Norway and his friends just 12 hours after the attack and fly alone to New York. “Almost all of us knew someone who died,” he said.
“The attack by a rightwing extremist on all these people at a youth camp was an attempt to destroy almost an entire generation of young, politically active people. Precisely the opposite of the aim of this conference,” Hvoslef-Eide said.
The Norwegian delegate said the attack showed how important it was not to lose sight of this aim and to ensure both the involvement of young people in the political process and the right to freedom of speech.
Swiss UN youth delegate, Oliver Felix, told swissinfo.ch of his shock at the attack. “The presence of the Norwegian delegate here and his words, and the contact between us have brought the whole thing much nearer,” he said.
Words like “inconceivable” and “heinous” characterised the reaction. At the same time, the young people present stressed their determination to continue their work for developing society and furthering mutual respect and understanding. The mood could be summed up as “now more than ever”.
“I was so shocked when I heard about this tragic attack,” said the American Melissa Brander. “The attack shows once again how important it is that we learn to solve our problems without violence.”
Brander was very impressed by the reaction of the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who said that Norway would respond to the violence with even more democracy, openness, participation and humanity.
James R. Aniyamuzaala from Uganda, who was in Norway for a youth project in 2009, was also unable to fathom what had happened. “This attack shows how important it is that we learn as small children to treat other people, other cultures, religions and ideas with respect.”
Norway “won’t be intimidated”
In his address to the meeting, Gjermund Saether, the chargé d’affaires at the Norwegian UN mission, said the youth of Norway would not “let themselves be terrorised into silence”.
The massacre was the worst attack that Norwegians had experienced since the Second World War, he said. “It hit the heart of our democracy. But we will not be intimidated.”
The young people gathered on the island of Utoeya had been driven by “their belief in democracy, multiplicity and inclusiveness” as well as their “right and duty” to play a part in Norway’s political life.
Saether ended by quoting a young Norwegian woman. “If one man can show so much hate, how much more love can all of us show in return!”
Swiss Youth delegates
Each year since 2003 the Swiss National Youth Council has selected “Youth Reps” to promote youth issues at the international level.
The three representatives work closely with the foreign ministry on these issues, and inform Swiss youth about the United Nations and UN themes.
Twenty-one year old Swiss Youth Rep Oliver Felix told swissinfo.ch that he was disappointed with the meeting in New York, saying the proof in the pudding would be whether the goals listed in the final document would be implemented or not.
Many of the youth in attendance complained that the General Assembly does not devote enough time to youth issues.end of infobox
World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY)
The WPAY, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1995, provides a policy framework and practical guidelines for national action and international support to improve the situation of young people around the world. The WPAY covers 15 youth priority areas and contains proposals for action in each of these areas.
The fields of action are: education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, substance abuse, juvenile justice, leisure-time activities, girls and young women, and the full and effective participation of youth in the life of society and in decision-making, as well as globalisation, information and communication technologies, HIV/Aids, armed conflict, and intergenerational issues.end of infobox
(Adapted from German by Morven McLean), swissinfo.ch