Affirming the Rights of Young People at United Nations World Summits and Conferences Print

A Guide for Youth Advocates

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The United Nations periodically convenes world summits and conferences that focus on important public issues and draw high levels of political participation, including heads of states. Such summits and conferences may mobilize governments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society to act on urgent global problems. The meetings also allow member states to agree to goals and commit to acting to achieve those goals.

Defining the goals and the commitments of member states can be a lengthy process, involving a series of consultations among member states and international and NGO experts. While seldom binding, international agreements can set global expectations that everyone will work towards certain common goals.[1] After a country has signed the agreement, it may face internal and external pressure to make progress on the commitments it has made. Sometimes, the United Nations General Assembly holds special sessions (usually at five-year intervals) to follow-up on UN summits and conferences and to assess worldwide progress.

Whether participating at a UN meeting or advocating for youth's sexual and reproductive health and rights within your own country, it is important to know about past international agreements that address youth's health and rights. These agreements provide precedents∗ to use in your advocacy efforts. This document briefly summarizes youth-related aspects of important international agreements (in date order).

1979, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

CEDAW is the first international document to address women's rights comprehensively—that is, politically, culturally, economically, and socially as well as within the family. The Convention defines discrimination against women as "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

Although CEDAW does not specifically address youth, several of its articles address the health and educational concerns of young women, including early marriage, too early childbearing, education, and access to reproductive health services. In advocating for youth's reproductive and sexual health and rights, you may find the following of value:

Article 10: “States shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination …in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women…the reduction of female student drop-out rates and the organization of programmes for girls and women who have left school prematurely.”[2]

Article 10: Women are entitled to “Access to specific educational information to help to ensure the health and well-being of families, including information and advice on family planning.”[2]

Article 16: Women have … “the same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent.”[2]

Article 16: Women have … “the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.”[2]

For more information, visit: or

1989, Convention on the Rights of the Child

Adopted in November 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history.[3] It is also the first international instrument to include the full range of human rights—civil and political as well as economic, social, and cultural.[4] In recent years, ratifying nations added two optional protocols—one on children in armed conflict and the other on child prostitution and pornography.[4] The Convention provides an international consensus on children's rights. As such, it applies to everyone under the age of 18, except in countries that legally define adulthood as beginning at an age younger than 18.[5]

In advocating for youth’s reproductive and sexual health and rights, the following may be of value:

Article 13: “Children have the right to get and share information, as long as the information is not damaging to them or others … Freedom of expression includes the right to share information in any way they choose, including by talking, drawing or writing.”[4]

Article 17: “Children have the right to get information that is important to their health and well-being. Governments should encourage mass media … to provide information that children can understand and to not promote materials that could harm children.”[4]

Article 24: “Children have the right to good quality health care - the best health care possible, to safe drinking water, nutritious food, a clean and safe environment, and information to help them stay healthy…”[4]

Article 28: “The Convention places a high value on education. Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable.”[4]

For more information, visit UNICEF’s CRC web page at

1994, International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)

For ICPD, delegations assembled in Cairo from 179 member states and from thousands of NGOs. Member states negotiated the 20-year action plan to develop a “new era of population” by 2015.[5] The ICPD Programme of Action (also known as the Cairo Consensus) placed the individual needs of men and, especially, women as the single most important factor for governments in determining population and development policies and strategies.[6] As such, ICPD provides a policy framework and practical guidelines for national and international action to improve the situation of youth.[6]

In advocating for youth’s reproductive and sexual health and rights, the following may be of value:

Action 5.5: “…Measures should be adopted and enforced to eliminate child marriages and female genital mutilation…”[7]

Action 6.8: “Countries should give high priority and attention to … the protection, survival and development of children and youth, particularly street children and youth, and should make every effort to eliminate the adverse effects of poverty on children and youth, including malnutrition and preventable diseases. Equal educational opportunities must be ensured for boys and girls at every level.”[7]

Action 6.13: “Countries should aim to meet the needs and aspirations of youth, particularly in the areas of formal and non-formal education, training, employment opportunities, housing and health, thereby ensuring their integration and participation in all spheres of society, including participation in the political process and preparation for leadership roles…”[7]

Action 6.15: “Youth should be actively involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation of development activities that have a direct impact on their daily lives. This is especially important with respect to information, education and communication activities and services concerning reproductive and sexual health, including the prevention of early pregnancies, sex education and the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.”[7]

1999, International Conference on Population and Development + 5

In 1999, five years after ICPD, the United Nations General Assembly convened a special session (ICPD+5) to review world progress towards meeting the goals agreed upon at ICPD. The Special Assembly issued a document that reaffirmed the Programme of Action and identified key actions to take, which included education and literacy, reproductive health care and unmet need for contraception, maternal mortality reduction, and HIV/AIDS.[8] The document also emphasized commitments to youth by dedicating an entire section to adolescents. The ICPD+5 document identifies the following language as especially important for young people:

  • By 2015, meet the goal of achieving universal access to primary education and strive to ensure that by 2010 the net primary enrollment ratio for children of both sexes will be at least 90 percent.

  • Governments should ensure the protection and promotion of the rights of adolescents, including married adolescent girls, to reproductive health education, information and care.

  • In partnership with youth, governments should develop youth-specific HIV education and treatment projects.

  • By 2005, at least 90 percent, and by 2010, at least 95 percent, of young people would have access to the information and services they need to reduce their risk of HIV infection.

  • HIV rates in young people should be a central benchmark indicator, "with the goal of ensuring that, by 2005, prevalence in this age group is reduced globally, and by 25 percent in the most affected countries, and that, by 2010, prevalence in this age group is reduced globally by 25 percent."

  • Young people should have sex education at all levels of schooling.

In 2004, 10 years after ICPD, several national, regional, and global meetings took place at which governments reviewed progress and reaffirmed their commitment to the ICPD Programme of Action. Indeed, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session demonstrated overwhelming government support as member states stressed the importance of ICPD's Programme of Action in achieving the Millennium Development Goals.[9]

2009, International Conference on Population and Development + 15

In 2009, 15 years after ICPD, ownership of the ICPD Programme of Action was expanded through partnerships to serve as a foundation for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A number of meetings and consultations took place during the year to review progress and identify gaps to realizing the ICPD vision. Additionally, the meetings also provided practical recommendations for the MDG at 10 review which took place in 2010.[10]

The following language related to young people was included in the 2009 resolution:

  • Urge governments to provide young people with comprehensive education on human sexuality, on sexual and reproductive health, and on how to deal positively and responsibly with their sexuality.

  • Eliminate all child marriages and other child unions.

  • Ensure that all young people have information about and access to the widest possible range of safe, effective, affordable, evidence-based and acceptable methods of family planning, including barrier methods and to the requisite supplies.

For more information, visit

1995, Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing Summit)

The Fourth World Conference on Women met in Beijing in 1995 and focused on increasing opportunities for women and on advancing goals of equality, development, and peace for women. One hundred eighty-nine governments participated as did representatives from thousands of NGOs. Member states put forth a Platform of Action. It outlined strategic objectives to advance the roles of women.

The 12th objective specifically addressed the “girl child.”[11] In advocating for youth’s reproductive and sexual health and rights, the following may be of value:

Platform of Action: Governments must “Include in their activities women with diverse needs and recognize that youth organizations are increasingly becoming effective partners in development programmes.”[11]

Platform of Action: Governments must “Ensure equal access to and equal treatment of women and men in education and health care and enhance women’s sexual and reproductive health as well as education.”[11]

Action 281 (c): “Strengthen and reorient health education and health services … including sexual and reproductive health, and design quality health programmes that meet the physical and mental needs of girls and that attend to the needs of young, expectant and nursing mothers.”[11]

Action 281 (d): “Establish peer education and outreach programmes with a view to strengthening individual and collective action to reduce the vulnerability of girls to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases…”[11]

For more information visit:

2001, United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on HIV/AIDS

The Special Session on HIV/AIDS, held in June 2001 in New York City, drew attention to the intensifying HIV and AIDS crisis. Member states developed a Declaration of Commitment, Global Crisis, Global Action, and set specific targets to alleviate the pandemic. The targets addressed the extent of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, its effects, and ways to combat the epidemic.

The Declaration also set out goals and statements regarding youth. In advocating for youth’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, the Declaration of Commitment asserts that Member states should:

  • Acknowledge the particular role and significant contributions of young people in addressing all aspects of HIV and AIDS.[12]
  • Involve youth fully in designing, planning, implementing, and evaluating effective responses to the epidemic.[12]
  • Reduce HIV prevalence by 25 percent among young men and women ages 15 through 24 by 2005 in the most affected countries; by 2010, reduce HIV prevalence by 25 percent among youth worldwide.[12]
  • Ensure youth’s access to information and services by 2005 so that at least 90 percent of young men and women ages 15 through 24 can reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection. By 2010, assure access to HIV prevention information and services for 95 percent of the world’s youth, ages 15 through 24.[12]
  • Ensure access to primary and secondary education for both girls and boys by 2003, including HIV prevention curricula and safe and secure environments, especially for young girls.[12]
  • Expand good-quality, youth-friendly, sexual health education and counseling services and strengthen reproductive and sexual health programs.[12]
  • Involve families and youth as much as possible in planning, implementing, and evaluating HIV prevention and care programs.[12]

2006, UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS

The High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, sometimes referred to as the UNGASS Review on HIV/AIDS or UNGASS +5, was a review of the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS held in June 2001. The purpose of the meeting was to assess progress and highlight challenges towards achieving the goals and targets laid out in the UN’s 2001 Declaration of Commitment, “Global Crisis-Global Action.”[13] Overall, the resolution was disappointing, as Member States fought many of the same battles on vulnerable populations, prevention, and trade that occurred in 2001. Instead of drawing a roadmap to achieving universal access to treatment, care, and prevention, by the end of the three-day meeting, Member States were barely able to agree on a watered-down political declaration re-affirming the original document.

There were some gains in language on youth and evidence-based HIV prevention. The resolution makes the following commitments to young people:

Paragraph 8. Express grave concern that half of all new HIV infections are among children and young people under the age of 25 and that there is a lack of information, skills and knowledge regarding HIV/AIDS among young people.[26]

Paragraph 26. Commit to address the rising rates of HIV infection among young people to ensure an HIV-free future generation through the implementation of comprehensive, evidence-based prevention strategies, responsible sexual behaviour, including the use of condoms, evidence-and skills-based, youth specific HIV education, mass media interventions, and the provision of youth friendly health services.[13]

For more information, visit

2011, UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS

At the 2011 High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, the UN General Assembly reported that many countries had not achieved goals set forth in the 2001 and 2006 declarations. The 2011 Political Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly, includes the following targets for 2015: universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support; halt spread of HIV to realize the sixth Millennium Development Goal; halve sexual transmission of HIV and transmission among intravenous drug users; eliminate mother-to-child transmission, halve tuberculosis deaths in people living with HIV; significantly reduce AIDS-related maternal deaths; put 15 million people living with the disease on antiretroviral drug therapy; and accelerate research and development for a safe, affordable, effective, accessible vaccine and a cure for HIV. Additionally, Member States committed to closing the $6 billion annual HIV/AIDS resource gap by reaching global expenditures totaling between $22 billion to $24 billion.[14]

The Declaration failed to include targets specific to youth and notes the following general commitments to young people:

  • Ensure access of both girls and boys to primary and secondary education, including HIV/AIDS in curricula for adolescents and expand good-quality youth friendly information and sexual health education and counseling services.
  • Increase the capacity of adolescent girls to protect themselves from the risk of HIV infection through the provision of sexual and reproductive health as well as access to comprehensive information and education.
  • Encourage and support the active involvement and leadership of young people, including those living with HIV and agree to work these new leaders to help develop specific measures to engage young people about HIV.
  • Commit to strengthen national social and child protection systems and care and support programs for children and adolescents affected by and vulnerable to HIV.
  • Provide comprehensive information, especially age-appropriate HIV information to assist children living with HIV as they transition through adolescence.
  • Commit to promoting laws and policies that ensure the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for young people, particularly those living with HIV and those at higher risk of HIV infection.

2000, Millennium Summit and, 2002, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

The Millennium Summit was the largest gathering of world leaders in history and the first General Assembly of the new century. Leaders of 189 countries came together, pledging to: eliminate poverty; create sustainable development; and ensure human rights, peace, and security for the entire world’s people.** At the conclusion of the Millennium Summit, delegates unanimously adopted a declaration that reinforced the fundamental dignity of every person, highlighted the family’s role in children’s lives, endorsed the principle of nondiscrimination, and established clear governmental obligations.[15]

Though the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) do not explicitly refer to youth's reproductive health, countries cannot achieve several of the goals without also improving youth's reproductive and sexual health. For instance, comprehensive sex education and access to contraception and condoms contribute to reductions in maternal mortality (Goal 4) and HIV (Goal 6), while preventing child marriage and too-early childbearing helps promote gender equality (Goal 3) and helps reduce child mortality (Goal 4). In advocating for youth's reproductive and sexual health and rights, the following MDGs may be of particular value:

Goal 3, "Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women. Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015."[15]


Goal 4, "Reduce Child Mortality. Reduce by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate."[15]

Goal 5, "Improve Maternal Health. Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio; Achieve universal access to reproductive health."[15]

Goal 6, "Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Disease. Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS; Achieve, by 2010, universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all those who need it; Have halted by 2015 and begun to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases."[15]

For more information, visit

2011 UN High Level Meeting on Youth

The overarching theme of the 2011 UN High Level Meeting on Youth, which culminated the International Year of Youth, was "Youth: Dialogue and Mutual Understanding." During the two day event, Member States attended panels that addressed international cooperation to enhance youth dialogue and participation in the context of achieving social integration, full employment, the eradication of poverty, employment and sustainable development.[16]

The outcome document adopted by Member States only includes one reference to youth sexual and reproductive health and rights in the form of the following pledge:

(k) Ensure that young people enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health by providing youth with access to sustainable health systems and social services without discrimination and by paying special attention to, and raising awareness regarding, nutrition, including eating disorders and obesity, the effects of non-communicable and communicable diseases and sexual and reproductive health, as well as measures to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.

Written by Tara Thomas and Tara Nesvaderani, May 2006, © Advocates for Youth

Additional material by Naina Dhingra, August 2006

Updated by Sulava Gautam, August 2011

* A previous legal standard or example that may be important in present and future situations.
** Sustainable development refers to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.


1. Hemmati M, Seliger K, eds. The Stakeholder Toolkit: A Resource for Women and NGOs [UNED Forum];; accessed 12/1/2005.

2. United Nations. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, New York; Author, 1979;; accessed 3/20/2006.

3. UNICEF. Voices of Youth: Be in the Know [CRC Fact Sheet];; accessed 3/21/2006.

4. UNICEF. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Switzerland: Author, 1989; ; accessed 10/21/2005.

5. UNICEF. A Summary of Rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child [Fact Sheet];; accessed 4/11/2006.

6. UNFPA. Summary of the ICPD Programme of Action. New York: UNFPA, 1994;; accessed 3/30/2006.

7. United Nations. Report of the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 5-13 September 1994, [United Nations Population Information Network (POPIN)];; accessed 4/10/2006.

8. UNFPA. Key Actions for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action of the ICPD – ICPD +5. Available at: (Accessed July 2011).

9. UNFPA. Consolidating the Achievement of the ICPD. New York: Author;; accessed 5/11/2006.

10. UNFPA. ICPD/15: Actions and Outcomes. Available at: (Accessed July 2011).

11. United Nations. Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 4-15 September 1995;; accessed 4/12/2006.

12. United Nations. Annex-Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, UN General Assembly Resolution, August 2001;; accessed 3/20/2006.

13. United Nations. "Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS: Global Crisis – Global Action."; accessed August 1, 2006.

14. United Nations. 2011. Adoption of Political Declaration Promises 'Bold and Decisive Action' To Wipe Out What Remains of Global Human Tragedy of HIV/AIDS, as High-Level Meeting Concludes. Department of Public Information News and Media Division. Available at: (Accessed June 2011).

15. United Nations. "Millennium Deveopment Goals." Accessed from on 8/23/2011.

16. United Nations. 2011. "United Nations High-level Meeting on Youth, 25-26 July 2011." Available at: (Accessed August 2011).

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