The children at J8 will discuss climate change and human rights

The Group of Eight delegates are not the only leaders meeting in Italy this week. Young people have formed their own global forum - the Junior 8.

Organised by Unicef, the "J8" will meet alongside the G8 in L'Aquila, and some leading human rights activists believe the young people's forum is just as important - if not more.

Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights, said: "They must be listened to – they have a lot to say and they have a good sense of the kind of change we need.

"Young people are much more open to a sense of justice and to new technologies, innovative ideas and the changes we actually need now. It's not business as usual. Young people are very keen to take responsibility and be part of the solution and that is why the J8 is such an important meeting to have alongside the G8."

While the G8 leaders include some of the world's most powerful people, the J8 delegates are ordinary schoolchildren.

Making a change

Teams from each country are selected to attend through a national competition which anyone can apply for.

The winning British team comes from a secondary school in Croydon that is about to be closed unless examination results improve because it has been deemed as "failing".

Barzi Saleh, 16, originally from Kurdistan, is one of the Haling Manor School team.

"It's important for the J8 to meet because it shows the G8 that their children have their own voice and can do something about what they don't like in the world," he says.

"Most people think nothing can be done about nothing, but us coming from a failing school and winning the place on the J8 shows that you can do something.

"Teachers came up to us after we won it, saying that all the younger kids were saying: 'Look how you can make a change.'

"It shows children do have rights and can be heard."

Climate change

The G8 first met after the 1973 oil crisis, which led to a global recession, and their main focus often remains global economics. But for the J8, human rights and climate change are much higher on the agenda.

"I really, really feel we need to do something about climate change," Saleh says. "There is no point working on the financial crisis if we won't have any land and no water. People push the issue of climate change away because they can't see it."

Ravi Karkar, one of the original organisers of the J8, has been constantly impressed with the participants' concern over countries more disadvantaged than their own.

"Children have more honesty and more empathy – I see more equality every year. A number of the children go to meet the G8 leaders and they self-select democratically. It takes a lot of courage, honesty and sincerity to do that."

"Young people are always bringing up the issues of other marginalised people.

"I'll give you an example: In Germany in 2007, the J8 said that they wouldn't meet the G8 leaders without a member of a non-G8 country [being present].

"So, for the first time, we had a meeting with a non-G8 member. This year we've invited 20 other non-G8 countries to participate.

"Personally, I have learnt more from these young people than many other leaders.”

Future leaders

And are there future G8 leaders among the J8?

Taking part in the first J8 in 2005 certainly inspired Lorenzo Casulla, now at Cambridge University studying land economy, to take a role in world events.

"You learn so much when you are on the spot for 10 days with 18 people from around the world – people are throwing problems at you and throwing issues at you – it's a big shock.

"It's an amazing starting point for finding opportunities to unite people – in your own city, in your school - and to keep in touch with your peers all over the world. You get to work out what you can do as an individual and a community.

"You realise you have a potential through J8 – I did work with Unicef in Milan afterwards. A girl from Moldova founded an NGO, and a girl from Sierra Leone began training former child soldiers."

For her part, Lorenzo is now working with J8 organisers.

Karkar finds watching how the young people develop after the meeting one of the most satisfying parts of his job.

"I don't know about a future G8 leader, but we certainly have leaders taking human rights and humanity forward and that is the kind of G8 leaders I hope we have in the future."

Source: Al Jazeera