United Nations

World leaders promise to create "A World Fit for Children" at UN Special Session

UNITED NATIONS - The world has changed greatly in the dozen years since world leaders last met to discuss how to better help and protect the world's children.

In particular, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the increasing use of children as soldiers, and the widening gap between rich and poor have all emerged as new threats to the health and well-being of young people around the world.

And so, while acknowledging that some progress had been made since the 1990 World Summit for Children, leaders gathered here in May for the 2002 United Nations Special Session on Children agreed that many recent trends had made things worse for young people.

"More than 10 million children die each year although most of those deaths could be prevented; 100 million children are still out of school, 60 per cent of them girls; 150 million children suffer from malnutrition; and HIV/AIDS is spreading with catastrophic speed," stated the 180 governments represented at the Special Session, which was held 8-10 May 2002.

"There is persistent poverty, exclusion and discrimination, and inadequate investment in social services," continued the governments in the Session's final Declaration. "The childhood of millions continues to be devastated by hazardous and exploitative labor; the sale and trafficking of children, including adolescents, and other forms of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence."

In the face of these realities, governments called on "all members of society" to join them in a "global movement" to "help build a world fit for children."

They adopted a Plan of Action that mainly reaffirms their commitment to the goals world leaders set two years ago in the Millennium Declaration to fight poverty and its effects but which also specifically calls for greater efforts to mitigate the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on children, to improve the opportunities for their education, to protect those affected by armed conflict, and to end their exploitation.

Reaching consensus on the Session's final Declaration and Plan of Action was by all accounts a difficult process. Although there was agreement on many points prior to the meeting, governments went into the Session sharply divided on several key issues. Among them were the degree to which to focus on the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the central legal framework for protecting children and the language on reproductive health issues.

In the end, however, consensus was reached and government leaders and officials from UNICEF - which organized the Session - called the meeting a success.

"We have adopted a Declaration that describes, very clearly, the steps we must take to build a new world fit for children," said Ambassador Han Seung-soo of South Korea, President of the UN General Assembly. "It does so in a clear, concise and robust manner. It is a practical and achievable checklist, not only for a better future, but also for immediate action that will improve child well-being today."

Added Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund): "I am enormously proud and pleased at what has been accomplished this week. If leaders keep the promises they have made, we can bring about enormous positive change in the world in less than a generation."

However, some of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that attended the Session expressed disappointment at the outcome. In particular, some NGO representatives said governments should have put more emphasis on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As well, some NGOs felt language on reproductive rights was vague. And many felt the document could have been even more specific in outlining commitments to be undertaken by governments.

"The major disappointment of NGOs was that the Convention on the Rights of the Child was not clearly designated as the legal framework for children's rights worldwide," said Mary Purcell, co-chair of the NGO Steering Committee for the Session. "If you move away from it, you make it more dilute."

On the other hand, said Ms. Purcell, who is UN representative of the International Federation of University Women, the Session did strengthen the commitment of governments in areas of key importance.

"Ten years ago, at the Children's Summit, the focus was much more on health, immunization, clean water, and the like," said Ms. Purcell. "This document moves forward into the reality of the new millennium, where things like armed conflict and HIV/AIDS are major problems for children."

NGOs sponsored a number of side events and workshops in connection with the Session. According to Ms. Purcell, about 1,700 NGO representatives were accredited to the Session, and NGOs sponsored some 80 workshops and panel discussions. "They provided a wonderful place for networking and building future coalitions," she said.

Another feature of the Session was the presence of children. For the first time in UN history, according to UNICEF, children addressed a plenary session of the UN General Assembly. The children came from a special Children's Forum, which brought some 300 children from around the world to New York. A concert featuring children from around the world was also a distinctive feature of the Session.

"Just bringing all of these children to New York, to be heard and seen, was very important," said Bani Dugal, the main representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the Session. "It has given the whole issue of accountability a different meaning, by showing to governments the kind of impact their policies can have on children and hearing directly from the children that are affected by these policies."

Among the delegates to the Children's Forum was 15-year-old Anjali Mody, a member of the Bahá'í community of India. In a speech to the Children's Forum, she talked about the importance of rights for women as a key issue in helping children.

In India, she said, "[p]eople believe that men, being the providers of income in the family, should be given first priority. But I believe that by giving first priority to the education of women and girls, it will be through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively spread throughout society."