Let the Youth's Voices Really Be Heard: Reflections from Navi Pillay's address at the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament
On the 30th of August at the third sitting of Sri Lanka Youth Parliament, the Parliament and observers were honored with a visit from Mrs. Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights who addressed them while she is in the island on her official visit. Before one reads any further please do keep in mind that I am a great admirer of Mrs. Pillay and her achievements, as well as her current status. I admire her greatly as a person, in the capacity of her position - and especially the heights she has risen to being a colored woman from a non-western nation. This piece is not intended to criticize but to provide a view point on how as an engaged youth of Sri Lanka, the feeling I was left after her address.
Mrs. Pillay was preceded by a moving and quite frankly incredible address by Youth Parliamentarian, a young lady who's name I am currently trying to source. (Edit: Her name is Jayathma Wickramanayake and you can read the full text of her amazing address here)
She spoke about the willingness of youth to be a part of the reconciliation process, how we can make a change in what affects our futures, and most importantly she talked about how the youth is not taken seriously by those in decision making positions. I could not agree with this more. Personally I believe that the reason that we find a great deal of the youth population to be disengaged and apathetic is because they are often belittled, marginalized and ridiculed. Moreover that in some ways encourages the feisty – what is worse is when just to fulfill false promises and create a pretty picture, token groups and delegates are appointed and funded. More often than not the work and opinion of these young people are disregarded, not taken notice of – leaving them feeling like dolls that have been placed in a situation to give the illusion of a lovely picture.
Mrs. Pillay expressed her admiration for the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament and acknowledged the preceding speaker for her deeply stirring speech. She described the various examples she has seen across the globe of youth taking their beliefs into their own hands and is struck by the similarity of the messages they share – “the desire to be heard, to be a part of development, to be engaged with change”. In talking specifically about Sri Lanka, she told the Youth Parliament that it was time for Sri Lanka Youth to play a formative role in society, and expressed her sadness for those (including diasporas) who seem “frozen in hatred”. Mrs. Pillay touched on the issues they face of lack of university places despite being qualified, under and unemployment, as well as especially noting the high rate of youth suicide and urging them to find a way to “translate such despair into hope”. She assured them that the United nations is there to support youth for “the betterment of Sri Lanka and the world”.
Mrs. Pillay is obviously an incredibly articulate and eloquent speaker, and she captivated the entire audience with her powerful delivery. However when looking back - I feel she merely delivered a general surface lecture, with very little to take back to those youth who are all in their own way engaging and trying to do their part. She encouraged yes – but one could argue that looking back there was far more cursory acknowledgment than anything else. I must not fail to mention that Mrs. Pillay’s agenda in Sri Lanka is far greater than delivering inspirational talks, her time is limited and her duties great. The findings of her investigation will undoubtedly affect us a great deal, and no doubt her focus is on being a through as possible in doing so.
It would have been greatly appreciated however if she, in her capacity as an individual and the position she holds could have at the least encouraged the governors of the nation to take our youth seriously, and ensure that their opinions are encourage, they are engaged with, and their insights reflected upon at the very least. I wish that she could have been more encouraging to the youth who are fighting to be heard in a culture that inherently places undue importance on age as a measure of ability. Once again though I must reiterate that the fact that Mrs. Pillay agreed to speak at the Youth Parliament despite her tight schedule was admirable, and once cannot demand too much. She did mention that on her visit to Killinochi she spoke to the young people at a training institute on their "hopes and dreams" and I sincerely hope that is a sign of her committed engagement with the youth she meets,
The call then goes out to those who remain in governing positions and who are able to build long term relationships with the youth leaders of our nation. Engage with us, encourage us, value us. What you are doing today is shaping our future and we have the right to have a say. We are not irrelevant due to our age, in fact in my opinion we are more relevant because of it. We are fighting to shape our own destinies and to be the change we wish to see. Don’t discredit this – admire and uphold it.
I await the findings of the main purpose of Mrs Pillay’s visit, as it will be very telling for the future of Sri Lanka’s moving forward, as well as our relationship with international bodies such at the United Nations, the rest of the world and the Diaspora community.