Youth Rights

Young people’s path to adulthood and independence is strewn with obstacles. They often encounter barriers in accessing quality education, quality employment, social protection and full access to civil and political rights, limiting their potential. When paired with other other personal characteristics (gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, religion, etc.), age can often mean facing even greater obstacles. In short, far too many young people are living without access to their rights.

While international human rights conventions apply to everyone, not all groups in society have been granted the same level of protection by the international community. Despite the multitude of barriers and discrimination that young people face, they have yet to be recognised as a group in need of specific attention.

Youth Rights have therefore been one of the European Youth Forum’s everlasting policy objectives and have played a central part in defining all its policy and advocacy work. From campaigns calling for a Convention on the Rights of Young People towards various international institutions, to mainstreaming youth rights in human rights processes; and from calling for a rights-based approach to youth, to the lodging of a legal complaint on the issue of unpaid internships in Belgium, advocacy actions towards this policy goal have taken diverse forms.

  • Age-based discrimination
  • Collective complaint
  • Digital Rights
  • Equality
  • Human Rights
  • Intergenerational solidarity
  • Intersectionality
  • Multiple discrimination
  • Non-Discrimination
  • Rights-based approach (RBA)
  • Rights-holders
  • Youth rights

Youth rights refer to the full enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms by young people. Therefore, when the European Youth Forum refers to youth rights, it does not focus on creating something entirely “new” vis-à-vis existing human rights. However, the full enjoyment mentioned above may also entail, where needed, the creation of new rights and freedoms related to the age-specific needs of young people in connection and in complementarity with the existing legislation on human rights, including social and civil rights. 

Promoting Youth Rights certainly means promoting equality of opportunity and this could be done also through positive discrimination for young people. In this field it is crucial that young people’s information and awareness of their rights are promoted and that youth organisations represent an essential actor in this regard, together with advocacy work to formulate and seek the best instruments to defend and recognise such rights.

Youth rights can be referred to – among others – the following coherent categories: autonomy, education, participation, employment and social protection, freedom of expression and information, non-discrimination and equal opportunities, freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the right of conscientious objection to military service, juvenile justice and detention, mobility, sexual and reproductive health, healthy life, and the right to decide over their own body.

There is no specific framework or instrument setting out the particular rights of young people at a global level. A convention on youth rights has been put forward in the past as an idea that would have the potential to address the specific challenges young people face, just as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does for children. However, there has never been the necessary political will to draft such an instrument. Given the lack of a dedicated instrument on youth rights, the existing human rights conventions and their respective monitoring mechanisms have been used to mainstream youth rights. Despite the wide range of mechanisms available, however, youth as a group still struggles to get the attention it deserves. Recommendations do not usually cover youth rights, and human rights processes at international level are not always accessible to young people and youth organisations. These challenges illustrate how, while important, mainstreaming youth rights can only be part of the solution.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum fights for the specificity of youth as a transition phase between childhood and adulthood, from dependence to autonomy, to be recognised; and for youth rights to be protected, respected, and fulfilled.
  • The European Youth Forum fights to tackle all the barriers that young people face in accessing all of their rights, from social, economic and cultural, to civil and political rights, including through  mainstreaming youth rights in existing legal frameworks.
  • The European Youth Forum advocates for the adoption of a legally binding international convention on the rights of young people with an accompanying monitoring mechanism.
  • The European Youth Forum advocates for the establishment of a UN Special Procedure on the human rights of young people, such as an Independent Expert or Special Rapporteur.

The rights-based approach starts from the philosophical position that all people are entitled to a certain standard in terms of physical, mental and social well-being. It takes the side of people who suffer injustice by acknowledging their equal worth and dignity; it removes the charity dimension of protecting and promoting their rights by emphasizing them. The rights-based approach is based on the idea that human rights, by definition, are universal and inalienable, and that  people are not merely beneficiaries of policies, but active rights-holders, therefore establishing corresponding duties for states and other actors to take measures to uphold human rights, and be held accountable for their shortcomings. 

While an already well-established concept in fields such as international development and minority rights, the rights-based approach is relatively new when it comes to youth. The concept of rights-holders and duty-bearers introduces an important element of accountability into working with youth rights and moves the focus where it should be: empowering young people to claim their own rights. As a concept, the rights-based approach ensures the meaningful and systematic inclusion and empowerment of the most vulnerable.

A rights-based youth policy, which is adopted by the European Youth Forum and integrates the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into the development, implementation and evaluation of youth policy, should strive to actively promote the autonomy of young people, as well as their full participation in society. A rights-based approach to youth requires a fundamental shift both in the way that youth policy is approached and in the way we look at young people. 

Over the past decade, the European Youth Forum has been mainstreaming the rights-based approach in all of its work. In the policy development of the European Youth Forum, this has taking numerous forms over the past decades, including endorsing the European Charter of the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers, multiple policy documents on young people’s right to conscientious objection to military service, to mobility rights and the rights of interns as outlined in the European Quality Charter on Internships and Apprenticeships, and mainstreaming a rights-based language in all policy documents. Beyond policy, the European Youth Forum has focused on building the capacity of its own Member Organisations to implement this approach in their own advocacy at international, national, and local level.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum promotes a rights-based approach to youth, striving for young people to be recognised as rights-holders.
  • The European Youth Forum strives for a rights-based approach to youth policy, as a key tool to tackle the root causes of inequalities and address structural injustices.

The principles of equality and non-discrimination have been integral to the European Youth Forum from the very beginning. They form a cornerstone of the rights-based approach adopted by the European Youth Forum. One of the key methods of achieving this is by ensuring that youth are not negatively discriminated against on the grounds of age or on any other factor.

Discrimination is differential treatment or consideration of a person compared to how others in a similar situation would be treated or considered, based on an actual or ascribed characteristic that this person holds. Failure to recognise disadvantaged status and denial of measures to equalise the opportunities for young people who are disadvantaged for any reason also constitutes discrimination. The European Youth Forum emphasises that youth is far from a homogeneous group: accessing rights can present additional struggles when age is paired with other individual characteristics (e.g. as a young person’s ethnic and religious background; socio-economic status; gender; sexual orientation; etc.). A flexible age cohort and intersectionality are the defining characteristics of youth, what makes young people a cross-cutting age group, and what, at times, makes it difficult for their rights to be recognised. Nevertheless, the peculiarities of youth should not act as an obstacle to their enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms. Rather, they should be an incentive to protect young people in this transition phase of their life.

As such, the European Youth Forum acknowledges the importance of equality of opportunities and works towards reducing inequalities of outcomes, to ensure that society can progressively achieve greater equality. To this end, the European Youth Forum not only works to tackle the barriers that all groups of young people face in accessing and enjoying their rights, but also advocates for equality legislation at European level to adequately address age-based and multiple discrimination. As part of this work, the European Youth Forum also advocates for an intergenerational and  intersectional approach to policy making, in order to tackle visible stereotyping and discriminatory attitudes.

The Youth Forum’s policy development, advocacy and research spanning more than a decade has considered discrimination against young people on a large variety of grounds in addition to age, including gender, religion or belief, ethnic origin, colour of skin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, physical appearance, health status, social origin, language, economic status, refugee/asylum seeker status, statelessness, migrant, or other status.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum advocates for young people’s right to equality and non-discrimination, to address age-based and multiple discrimination suffered by youth and specific groups of young people.
  • The European Youth Forum advocates for anti-discrimination policies and legislation to better tackle all grounds for discrimination, including age.
  • The European Youth Forum calls for measures to be taken to increase young people’s awareness of their rights as well as remedies in case of discrimination.
  • In line with the rights-based approach, groups facing discrimination must be involved at all levels in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies affecting them.

With the arrival of the internet and the rapid digitisation of many aspects of everyday life over the last few decades, the idea of digital rights has taken shape as a natural extension of human rights in the digital era. As the group most connected to the internet, young people are naturally among the most affected by new risks associated with digitisation. So the idea of digital rights as youth rights, and how to ensure they are safeguarded, is an important debate to be had. Moreover, as new technologies and regulatory policies are developed and deployed by political actors and by companies, oversight by youth civil society is necessary to ensure young people’s rights are not violated.

Young people’s digital rights need to be defined, and new legal frameworks should be adopted to enshrine such rights in international law. The focus of the European Youth Forum in terms of digital rights has been on the need to address the digital divide, and on exploring the opportunities, as well as tackling the risks, linked to the relationship between democracy and social media. Other digital rights to consider include, for example, the right to privacy online, freedom of expression and association, standards for access to and control over one’s own personal data, the right to digital literacy, as well as any other human right that is affected by digital technologies.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum believes that all young people, regardless of their background, place of residence, abilities or other characteristics, should have equal access to information and communications technologies (ICT) and to a free, open and neutral internet.
  • Digital literacy, including media literacy, the development of critical thinking and other digital skills, should be considered a key aspect of young people’s right to education, and should be approached as a lifelong learning process that needs to start at an early age.

Key Documents and Resources