No youth rights convention for Europe (yet)

Thursday 18 February 10:31

Written for YO! Mag, published on 18 February 2016

The general position of member states of the Council of Europe towards respecting the rights of young people is opportunistic – even in a time when youth are the group at highest risk of poverty and social exclusion in Europe. Youth policies are not yet fulfilling their potential to address the huge issues that young people face, such as unemployment and social marginalization.

Most European states follow a policy-based rather than a rights-based approach to the rights of young people. From the perspective of rights-based approach, governments are obliged to respect, protect and guarantee the inherent rights of young people. This contrasts to a policy-based approach, where governments only empower young people when the political situation requires so.

That is why most governments oppose the launch of a European youth rights convention. It is commonly argued that young people have their fundamental rights already defended in either the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or the European Convention on Human Rights.

According to Professor Tony Evans, writing in Human Rights Quarterly, the present discourse on human rights is predominantly non-critical, which views problems in a technical way instead of re-questioning the dominant register of international law.

(2) Youth Rights Convention

We think in categories of ‘adult’ or ‘child’, although the adolescent is no longer a “child” but not yet an “adult.” Youth rights, while not found in the above-mentioned conventions, are fundamental rights that young people need to become adults and to actively take part in society.

These rights are currently severely harmed. The most severe violation concerns the right to employment. As the Council of Europe reports, the economic crisis has hit young people the hardest. Often worsened by austerity measures in various member states, young Europeans find it more and more difficult to land a job. As most extreme examples, we see that in Greece, Spain and Croatia almost half of the young people risk becoming unemployed after their education (Statista, 2016).

Moreover, young people’s right to equal treatment and participation in the society is at stake as they are underrepresented in politics. Most state bodies lack young members, and advisory boards are also filled with older people. Take for example the European Parliament: according to Debating Europe, the average age of MEPs is 51. Of all members, only three of the 750 members are currently under 30 (Novakov, 27, Nekov, 29 and Reintke, 28). As a result of underrepresentation, young people’s opinions are not taken into account sufficiently.

It would be unrealistic to say that a youth rights convention would be the key to solving these problems. Both Latin America and Africa have such conventions, and the situation for young people is harsh there as well.

According to International Labour Organization (ILO), youth unemployment in Latin America has reached 14 percent, while six in ten young people work in informal employment that generally involves low wages, job insecurity and lack of protection.

The same goes for Africa, where the ILO reports that 23.8 percent of young people are unemployed, with millions of young people working in under-employment and lacking decent working conditions.

Nevertheless, a convention on youth rights would set official standards for the minimum rights that young people should have. These could include the right to autonomy, the right to equal opportunities, the right to conscientious objection to military service, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Unfortunately, even though young people face several problems, a youth rights convention in the short-term in Europe does not seem very probable. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, in unanimity, has twice rejected the call of the Parliamentary Assembly to initiate such a convention in the past five years, even though Italy and Portugal among others have supported the initiative.

(3) Youth Rights Convention

In the long term, it depends on both internal and external developments whether there will be a wind of change on the European continent.

Internally, an end to the economic crisis and convergence of perspectives on youth rights definitions could foster the development of a youth rights convention. A guarantee on social and economic rights in more prosperous times could gain more support, as the stakes would be smaller for the implementing governments.

Moreover, European countries differ in their approach to sexual and reproductive health. For a youth convention to materialise, either a more coherent view on these rights or a compromise on an absolute minimum will be necessary.

Externally, we can strive, together with Latin American and African states, for the establishment of a UN Youth Rights Convention. At the UN level, unfavourable countries have the possibility to opt out of such a convention, and a different decision-making system with broader governmental support enables an actual establishment of a UN Convention.

Even if not all European states signed such a convention, it would be a good step forward as the playing field would be clear and the non-partisan states would feel peer pressure to adopt it. Moreover, young people in signatory countries would have their rights guaranteed.

The more member states signed a youth rights convention, the more the Council of Europe would be pressured to act as the regional agent of the UN. This is why youth rights advocates will have the best chances at the UN. Proponents of a European convention should brace themselves for a tough and long battle, but not necessarily an impossible one.


Header image: University of Essex (Creative Commons)