Young Leadership in the Digital World: The UN Youth Panel on Technology during COVID-19

On April 24, Digital Peace Now joined United Nations Youth Envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, United Nations Under-Secretary General Fabrizio Hochschild, United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, and young digital citizens from around the world to talk about what is being done to move international digital cooperation forward during COVID-19.  

Today’s digital natives have grown up using the Internet as part of their daily lives. No other community better illustrates the need to protect the digital domain than the young people that rely on it most. This virtual discussion brought together young leaders in tech to share their perspectives on digital trends they’re seeing on the Internet related to accessibility, governance, inclusion, and digital trust and security. 


Kartik Sawhney, one of the youth speakers, is a disabilities advocate, software engineer, and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Young Leader. He contrasted the many ways technology has helped people with disabilities with the ways it has also widened the digital divide—especially during the global pandemic. For example, right now, virus response information is being pushed out online including on sites that disregard accessibility best practices— making the updates largely unavailable to the 1.3 billion people with disabilities globally. The lack of accessible technologies widens the digital divide, but also shines light on the need for innovation.


Younger generations have the power to pressure countries to respect human rights, and build trust between governments, according to Roman Chukov, the Friends for Leadership representative. He discussed young people’s role in global governance, and how such collaboration and cooperation wouldn’t be possible without digital connectivity.

Software developer Roshni Biswas asserted that the world’s response to COVID-19 is made entirely possible because of that same connectivity. A functioning internet has allowed for the success of flattening the curve and social distancing protocols by facilitating the timely exchange of data among researchers all over the world.


Ephraim Kenyanito of Article 19, a non-profit that promotes freedom of expression and information, pointed out that COVID-19 offers companies, governments, and institutions investment opportunities in places that aren’t connected yet, particularly on the African continent. Africa has a population of 1 billion people, but more than 50% of the population isn’t connected to the internet. He stressed that increased connectivity should not mean an increase in surveillance, and that the development of internet infrastructure must respect human rights.  


Digital Peace Now contributed to the conversation by calling attention to digital trust and security, and the urgency that comes with conversations around protecting the online world.

Recent cyberattacks on healthcare systems in France, Czechia, the United Kingdom and the World Health Organization are just a few examples of how some countries are taking advantage of the global pandemic by launching cyberattacks, while the world is at its most vulnerable. When facilities that are literally saving people’s lives are targeted, it’s clear that the systems we have in place for keeping the internet safe are not working. During the discussion, everyone agreed that hospitals and health care services should be off limits when it comes to cyberattacks.

In this vein, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has proposed a new international norm for the UN to consider that would protect all medical services and facilities from state sponsored cyberattacks. UN Under-Secretary General Hochschild has also taken a stand, calling for an international digital ceasefire. The hope is that the global pandemic will shine a light on the need for countries to lay down arms in the physical world and the digital world.

Moving forward, young people must be at the forefront of conversations shaping the future of the internet. In order to continue to benefit from the online world, we need to protect it, make it more accessible, and close the digital divide as we move deeper into the digital age.  When young people stand up together, their impact is undeniable—we now need to use this power to bring in the next evolution of the internet—one built on trust, security and inclusion.