Youth as levers of change in business and human rights

Posted December 16, 2021

When it comes to the future, young people have a lot at stake. And the field of business and human rights is no exception.  

Irresponsible business practices affect the prospects of young people living in a fair and livable world in the future. But they are speaking up. In many arenas, youth are already playing an important role in galvanizing support for responsible business among States and businesses, from climate activists to human rights defenders to young parliamentarians and entrepreneurs.

Over half of the world’s 1.8 billion young people live in Asia, and they are increasingly using their political voice, wallets, and professions to influence our societies and economies. However, there have been few efforts to systematically engage youth in the business and human rights (BHR) agenda.

Given this, the B+HR in Asia project is scaling up efforts to expand youth engagement, understand their perspectives, and amplify their voices, starting with the B+HR Lab 5 and the Asia session at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights that focused on youth as levers for change.

The fifth B+HR Lab – an annual meeting of UN actors and partners from civil society to discuss priority areas and recent developments on BHR in Asia held virtually this year on 23 November – called on participants to reflect on ways to enrich and expand youth engagement in their own work, and invited young entrepreneurs, researchers, activists, and others for a roundtable discussion and a breakout AMA (ask me anything) session where youth fielded questions directly from participants.

“Young people come with this raw passion for change, and now the ball is in our court on how we engage with them, how much training we give them, and how many doors we open for them. A lot of young people are concerned about these issues [of sustainability], but the bridges don’t exist for them to learn and speak about these things,” said Shagun Sethi, manager of programs and operations at Pontoka, emphasizing the need for organizations to first open the door for youth to be a bigger part of organizational ecosystems and decision-making bodies.

The roundtable was moderated by Kevin Lehmann, Business and Human Rights Analyst at UNDP. Other speakers at the Lab included An H. Trinh, research assistant at New York University Shangha; Lei Motilla, social and tech entrepreneur at AI4Gov; Mai N. Hoang, youth-climate advocate; Nanticha (Lynn) Ocharoenchai, environmental writer; Reynaldi Istanto, expert staff to the Minister of State-Owned Enterprises; Toni Chiran, indigenous human rights activist; Vishal Prasad, campaigner for Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change; and Watsal Rajbhandari, entrepreneur and founder of Dochaa.

Watch the roundtable here:

Speakers at the Asia session at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights highlighted the power of youth-led movements in driving political reforms on key issues.

Zoha Shahid, Research Society of International Law, noted that even the campaign pushing for the national action plan on business and human rights – which was recently adopted – started with Pakistani youth as levers of change.

“Young people are an important part of the discourse – they come with data and ground realities and they know how to use that to ask government entities to bring change,” she said.

Chelsea Islan, activist and actress, emphasized the potential of social media and swift, short and succinct language as an “opportunity to discuss business and human rights in a way that is understandable to a younger audience,” so that youth could become BHR advocates.

The discussion also explored opportunities to bring more young people into the business and human rights discourse and ensure meaningful collaboration between young people and adults.

“Only by including diverse voices do we get new ideas. By working with young people, the field of BHR would be richer,” said Justin Jos of University of New South Wales, emphasizing the need to break the chain of ‘idea capture’ – where the same ideas go around in a circle– through the inclusion of young academics aware of intersectional challenges that young people face in today’s world in the BHR discourse.

“We need to work with young people, not in a vertical space but in a horizontal setting where they are partners and collaborators in moving the agenda forward,” said Surya Deva, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

The Asia session was moderated by Harpreet Kaur, Business and Human Rights Specialist at UNDP. Other speakers included Nourah Al-Sulaiman,; Zoha Shahid, Research Society of International Law; Mohan Rabidas ,JAGRON Youth Forum; and Mulan, Blood Money Campaign.

Watch the session here:

In 2022, work on youth will continue through a range of activities, including new behavioral science research on youth and responsible consumption and youth and climate and support to young environmental human rights defenders in collaboration with UNDP’s Youth Co:Lab.

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