Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals: Never again! It’s time to rise up with courageous leadership

Dear António Guterres,

20 October 2023// Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals

We, the Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognized by the United Nations (UN) cohort 2022-2024, write this letter in deep grief, with our hearts broken by the pain of violence. One of our main tasks is to engage young people from across the world in supporting the UN’s work to catalyze action and advocacy by and for young people toward the realization of the SDGs. It is precisely in this spirit that we want to directly channel to you some rising voices of young people in our communities worldwide around SDG 16 on Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. In fact, many of them are afraid to speak up because they might be harassed, persecuted, or attacked, and we want them to be heard. In deploying this SDG, we fully stand with human rights, international law, and peace as a pillar. Following the Security Council Resolution 2419 (2018) that recognizes the role youth can play in conflict prevention and resolution, we want to fully step up to this role. While we all speak different languages, there is one universal one that we all understand, that of human suffering. Beyond all ideas, when we sense a rising pain in our brothers and sisters, the only appropriate response is compassion to alleviate that suffering.

The UN was created in 1945, following the devastation of the Second World War, with one central mission: the maintenance of international peace and security. With this in mind, we profoundly condemn the bloodshed occurring in Israel and Gaza, which recently started with the attack perpetrated by Hamas on the 7th of October and the killing of 1,400 Israeli citizens and took another 150 of them hostage. We are grateful to see voices rising up and condemning the war crimes committed by Hamas and the response of the international community to hold them accountable. At the same time, it is very worrying to see the quick escalation of violence and to contemplate the disproportionate response to these acts of terror, with heavy consequences for civilians and young people, including an overwhelming number of affected children. So far, the Israel Defense Forces have killed 4,651 Palestinians in Gaza, including 1,756 childrenThe strike on October 17th at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, a clear violation of international law, took away the lives of at least 500 hundred people, including medical personnel, refugees, and sick people. World Health Organization reported that since 7th October there have been 51 attacks against healthcare facilities in Gaza, and forcing people to flee them, is a death sentence for many. These attacks, as well as the targeting of schools, religious, and cultural sites, need to be condemned with the same impetus and stronger actions need to be in place to guarantee that international law is respected, holding those who are responsible for these crimes accountable. As young leaders, we are aware how an overwhelming majority of Gaza’s population is young with 65 percent being under the age of 24, and the median age is 18 years. In the face of a direct threat to their lives, we can not stay silent. We stand up in solidarity and speak up. One human life lost is one too many. SDG 16 Target 2 speaks of ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children, and Security Council resolutions 2250 (2015) and 2535 (2020) remind us of the importance of protecting young people in conflict. With each extra minute that passes, we are further failing as humanity, we create misery when we do not protect those most vulnerable. In 2021, you mentioned that

“if there is hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza today”.

Nowadays, that nightmare for children has only gotten worse. When children in Palestine look up, they should be mesmerized by the vastness and beauty of the sky, not the possibility of a bomb ending their lives, they should listen to the sound of birds singing, not explosions and guns. We can bring the best parts of our humanity and take them out of this inferno. You can count on us to be fully engaged in supporting a search for peace in the Middle East.

As the chief of the UN, we want to hold you accountable and demand strong measures. Thirty years ago the UN started its peacekeeping operation in Rwanda. UN’s lack of action and response led to the most intense genocide since World War II, with the systematic slaughter of an ethnic group. In 100 days it consigned about 800,000 Rwandans to their deaths. History is giving us a second chance and a possibility for redemption, learning from our mistakes as humanity in the past, and making courageous decisions in the present to prevent the scourge of war. World leaders stated that the international community should have been more active in the early stages of the atrocities in Rwanda to stop the genocide. We want to step up as young people and do all in our hands to have a world where there is no place for another mass slaughter. Recalling Security Council resolution 1366 (2001), paragraph 5, in which the Council expressed its willingness to give prompt consideration to early warning or prevention cases brought to its attention by the Secretary-General, and paragraph 10, in which the Council invited the Secretary-General to refer to the Council information and analyses from within the United Nations system on cases of serious violations of international law, including international humanitarian law and human rights law and on potential conflict situations arising, inter alia, from ethnic, religious and territorial disputes, poverty and lack of development, and expressed its determination to give serious consideration to such information and analyses regarding situations which it deems to represent a threat to international peace and security, we invite you, in cooperation with the Special Advisor on the Prevention on Genocide, to bring all relevant information and early warnings to the security council before it is too late. As humanity, we need to say, never again and act accordingly. We do not want another stain of genocide in the book of our civilization.

Renowned non-governmental organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have commented on Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, which is considered a crime against humanity, as defined in the Rome Statute and Apartheid Convention. This situation is combined with Israel’s statement on 12 October, asking for 1.1 million Palestinians in north Gaza to move to the south within 24 hours, amidst ongoing airstrikes, which amounts to forced displacement of the civilian population, a violation of international humanitarian law. At the moment, the Israeli government has cut off Gazans access to and supply of water, food, medicines, fuel, and electricity, they are indiscriminately bombed in their neighborhoods and evacuation routes, have been denied access to humanitarian aid, and are exposed to attacks with white phosphorus, constituting acts of collective punishment. UN Human Rights expert Francesca Albanese has requested an immediate ceasefire between the parties before we reach a point of no return and has warned how Israel, in the name of self-defense, is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing. Moreover, in recent declarations, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant mentioned that

“There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel…we are fighting against human animals and we are acting accordingly”

when referring to his siege of Gaza plan. As well, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the ongoing conflict as a

“struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.”

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention believes this type of language expresses the intent of genocide. This rhetoric is not only dehumanizing and openly fosters dangerous hate speech but is a reminder of the type of logic that has justified the most barbaric and cruel acts of violence in the past. Already in the United States, Wadea al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy was killed in a hate crime. In 2019, you launched the United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech. One of its principles is that tackling hate speech is the responsibility of all. We urge you, leading by example, to start by denouncing the declarations above that have already resulted in losing the valuable life of a fellow human being and might lead to many more.

This year we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of international human rights law, with the key affirmation “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” But is it truly a moment to celebrate, if the fear to act and protect the inherent dignity of each human being is higher than the will to peace? Dear António, as the Secretary-General of the UN, if you really stand for humanity, for the future, and for the prevention of further human suffering, this is your perfect chance to act. We applaud your humanitarian appeals to release hostages without conditions on behalf of Hamas and call for Israel to have unimpeded access to humanitarian aid. We recognize the progress made by having the first arrival of humanitarian aid to Gaza, but given the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, the real problem should be addressed. For 2 weeks, 2.2 million Palestinian people have lived under siege. Juliette Touma, director of communications from the UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) declares that the 20 trucks that entered Gaza are “a drop in the ocean” as the needs on the ground are huge. The UN aid chief, Martin Griffiths mentioned how aid deliveries to Gaza before the Israel-Hamas conflict were 100 trucks a day. The 20 trucks that have entered Gaza, the only humanitarian aid delivered so far in a period of two weeks pales in comparison to the current requirements. We can not stress nearly enough that this is not sufficient to fulfill the needs of Palestinians, people like you, like us, like each human being, full of inherent dignity and rights. And even then, humanitarian relief is not the overall solution to this issue, it is just a band-aid. Ending the siege and the violence towards civilians is.

We also celebrate your call for a ceasefire and further prevention of losing lives. The UN was created to preserve international peace and now, more than ever there is a great opportunity to show the importance of your figure to foster peace in our world. You have all our support to rise to the occasion. The lack of action, in this case, might represent that we failed humanity miserably once again and allowed another genocide to happen. Neither of us wants that to be our legacy and gift for future generations. You have a powerful voice that many leaders listen to. Please use it to influence the UN Security Council to reach a peaceful resolution for Israel and Palestine. As of today, two draft resolutions have been rejected. We invite you to urge Security Council members to swiftly reach an agreement, and in case of the lack of continuous unanimity of its permanent (“veto”) members, invite Security Council members and member states to make use of the General Assembly Resolution 377 Uniting for Peace. We demand a lift of the total siege imposed on Palestinian people, an immediate bilateral ceasefire, unimpeded access to humanitarian aid, and swift mediation that leads to a negotiated peace and the protection of all people, especially the most vulnerable communities, including children, women, the injured, people with disabilities, and young people.

Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognized by the United Nations (UN) 2022–2024