The 2016 Olympics have already shattered records, but even before the first competition began, these Games made history by giving athletes who have no country to call home a place on the starting line.
I expressed my appreciation to the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, for his compassionate leadership in forming the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, whose members I had the privilege of meeting. Their strength in surviving the horror of displacement and the pain of loss was remarkable. Although nothing can change the past, these athletes are proving that even the most impossible odds can be beaten. Whether or not they earn the chance to stand on the podium, they are already towering winners.
I saw in these young refugees the passion and promise possessed by millions of youth in our world. At this time of rampant poverty, hateful discrimination, rising violent extremism, environmental degradation and other global threats, we must look to those hardest hit, especially young people, for solutions.
The United Nations is committed to working for and with youth. I appointed the first-ever UN Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, when he was 28 years old. We are working on the ground to ensure every young person has the education, health, employment and rights they deserve. Every year, the UN’s Economic and Social Council Youth Forum brings together senior government officials and young activists to discuss the most pressing global concerns.
And the United Nations is partnering more and more with youth-led and youth-focused organizations to promote peace and development around the world.
International Youth Day, observed annually on August 12th, should be a time for real commitments. This year, I used the occasion to announce new steps to empower young people.
One serious injustice I have been seeking to correct is the exclusion of youth from security matters. It seems plain to me that if young people are considered good enough to die in wars, they should also have a seat at the table when leaders negotiate peace.
The United Nations Security Council finally recognized this last December when it adopted Resolution 2250 on supporting young peace builders.
To study progress on this unprecedented measure, I announced the members of a new Advisory Group. Like most other such panels, the Group is diverse and international – but it has the added benefit of including people who have lived the issue at stake. Nearly half of the Group’s members are young. One lost her father in war. A second survived being shot. Others were refugees. With the combined expertise of all the members, I expect their report will lead to new advances.
Young people have all the skills and energy needed to contribute to society – but they lack opportunities for decent work. Globally, more than 70 million are unemployed. To help rise to this challenge, I named a new Special Envoy for Youth Employment, former Chancellor of Austria Werner Faymann. He will work with my Youth Envoy and the UN’s experts on this issue, including in the International Labour Organization, to make a difference.
In our view, youth can do more than fill jobs – they can create them. I have called on young people to take risks based on the understanding that every successful entrepreneur climbed to the top on a stack of failures.
Young people everywhere can help realize the vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, our global plan for people, the planet and prosperity.
This year, the United Nations will name the first-ever class of UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals – 17 outstanding young individuals, chosen from more than 18,000 nominations. We will bring the appointees to UN Headquarters in September to hear their ideas for our common future.
These steps may seem small and largely symbolic. After all, 17 sustainable development leaders are just representative of the change we will need. The Advisory Group on youth and peace building has only a handful of members. And a new appointment may not seem game-changing.
Of course I understand these measures will not solve global problems overnight – and I am calling on all people, especially youth, to do their part. Everywhere I go and every chance I get, I urge young people to be global citizens, raise their voices and change our world. Tens of thousands of young people are already leading successful efforts. We need millions more to reach the Goals.
Incremental progress adds up. I remember holding my children in my arms, and now they have children themselves. You might not notice a young person growing little by little each day but you will surely see a dramatic difference over time. When we steadily support the world’s youth, they can create a safer, more just and more sustainable future for generations to come.
• Ban Ki-Moon is the United Nations Secretary General.