Young people defending human rights

I grew up in the suburbs of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Every four years, as elections approached, the nation was constantly reminded, through TV ads and tailored songs, to reject violence. In the months preceding the elections, our TV screens would be saturated with images of people in other countries who have been injured or displaced because of post-election violence. These images and songs have remained entrenched in my mind until now.

Fast forward to 2012, when I started college at the University of Edinburgh. A few friends and I set up a chapter of the British Red Cross on campus to raise awareness and funds for international disasters and crises. I also joined a Freedom of Expression Law Clinic that drafted petitions to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, urging them to advocate on behalf of arbitrarily detained journalists.

A young man standing at the Main UN Assembly lectern
© UNICEF/UN0347478/Schipper/GettyRoy Wang speaking about the importance of quality education at UNICEF’s CRC@30 Summit.

This issue is just the tip of the iceberg for me – I want to do more to interrogate policies and practices which violate international human rights law. UNICEF provides me with a platform to further my goals of advocating for human rights. Since the start of my internship with UNICEF, I have worked with the Public Partnerships Team to strengthen engagement with African Member States and the African Union, to advance the rights of children on the continent. Those childhood images rejecting violence stay with me still.

Human rights for all

In the spirit of Human Rights Day, we must all think about new and innovative ways to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly for children and young people. It is imperative to reflect on the great strides they are making to amplify their voices in the human rights space.

Human rights defenders now consist of people of different ages, geographies, and backgrounds.  This April in the United Kingdom, thousands of children took a day off from school to protest climate catastrophe demonstrations taking place in more than 70 towns and cities across the country. Young people are forward thinking and recognize the dire impact climate change will have on future generations. Greta Thunberg (16) and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (19), through peaceful protests (in Greta’s case) and through music (in Xiuhtezcatl’s case) urged world leaders to address climate change.

A group of delegates with placards
© UNICEF/UN0287903/NesbittPetrider Paul, AU Youth Advisory Council; UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore; Hon. Elizabeth Phiri, Minister of Gender of the Republic of Zambia; Ms. Aya Chebbi, AU Youth Envoy; H.E. Helene Marie Laurence Ilboudo Marchal, Minister of Women, National Solidarity, Family and Humanitarian Action, Burkina Faso; Serigne Ndiaye, AU Youth Advisory Council (l-r) at the 63 Session of the Commission on the Status of Women at UNICEF House.

Young people also play a key role in encouraging young people to actively engage in national and local decision-making processes. At the 2019 Women Deliver Conference in Canada, Natasha Mwansa (18) urged national leaders to take into account the rights and needs of children, gender equality, and the views of young people. During the High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Roy Wang (19) called for strengthened efforts to provide a quality education for all children.

Youth-led groups also contribute their perspectives to humanitarian agencies. For example, the African Union’s Special Envoy on Youth facilitates meaningful engagement between the African Union and Africa’s youth. Likewise, UNHCR’s Global Youth Advisory Council (GYAC) makes recommendations to UNHCR on initiatives such as the organization’s Global Compact on Refugees. GYAC comprises 15 young people from 18 to 25 years old from around the world.

These are just a fraction of young people taking matters into their own hands.

A group photo of people variously kneeling and standing on a red carpet
© UNHCR/Susan HopperA few of UNHCR’s Global Youth Advisory Council (GYAC) Members in 2019.

Young people are changing the world. Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day – a day that commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly over 70 years ago. Let’s do our best (locally or globally) to ensure that the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Declaration are upheld.

Tips on campaigning for human rights in your community

  • On Human Rights Day, read the Convention on the Rights of the Child and familiarize yourself with its provisions.
  • Start or join a society in your school or neighborhood; you could also collaborate with local NGOs to fundraise or organize special events.
  • Volunteer with international organizations or NGOs with a track record of doing great work.
  • Participate in peaceful protests.
  • Create or join online campaigns to raise awareness.
  • Read different news sources to attain a holistic view of current affairs.


Lois Duncan is an intern in UNICEF’s Public Partnerships Division, working with the Africa team.


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