New York, 11 November 1999
Mr. President, Madam Deputy Secretary-General, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Friends:
Today we commemorate a milestone -- the first 10 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the great legal and ethical instrument for promoting and protecting the rights of all children -- and the beacon that guides UNICEF in all its work.
The surpassing importance of this landmark document is reflected in the decision of the General Assembly to suspend its other important business today -- and in that connection, I extend my sincere thanks to the President of the 54th Session of the General Assembly, Dr. Theo-Benn Gurirab, for his generous assistance -- and for his abiding commitment to the cause of child rights, which he has so eloquently expressed in declaring that the fulfillment of child rights must be a priority for the General Assembly.
Mr. President, today's commemoration is but one of many events that have been taking place in all parts of the world to mark the anniversary of the General Assembly's adoption of the Convention on November 20th, 1989.
The number and diversity of these events is a testament to the remarkable success of a treaty that has been ratified with unprecedented speed by virtually the entire community of nations.
What is also remarkable is the broad range of actors who have gathered, in this anniversary year, to reaffirm their commitment to the cause of child rights -- including representatives of Governments, international groups, of UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, children and their families, academics and professional groups -- indeed, the whole diverse mosaic that is civil society.
Mr. President, this broad participation symbolizes something very special about the Convention, something that gives it unique importance and authority. For the Convention has entered into public consciousness in a way that no other treaty ever has.
In fact, it has become the centrepiece of a global movement, a movement that reflects a growing awareness of the importance of safeguarding human rights -- and child rights in particular. Its effects can be seen everywhere.
In the process of UN reform, children's rights have been adopted as a cross-cutting theme for development cooperation and humanitarian action.
A stirring example came just a few months ago, with the Security Council's adoption of a groundbreaking Resolution on children in armed conflict -- a major step in elevating the plight of tens of millions of children victimised by war to the very centre of the world's peace and security agenda.
But there is more. New agreements now exist to ensure legal safeguards in the process of inter-country adoption, to prevent the worst forms of child labour, to fight impunity for war crimes committed against children, and to combat the scourge of landmines.
UN peace-keeping missions now include training in child rights and child protection, as well as the designation of specific personnel to focus on child protection within the broader peace-keeping mandate. And the Convention itself is being reinforced through the drafting of two important optional protocols.
In all of this, the Committee on the Rights of the Child continues to play a crucial role in monitoring the Convention's implementation, in stimulating further action and in suggesting ways of addressing problems encountered, including through international cooperation.
UNICEF supports all aspects of the work of the Committee, not only through advocacy and monitoring but also, through UNICEF's Country Programmes, in providing technical assistance and practical follow-up to its recommendations.
In so doing, UNICEF works closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose Plan of Action to Strengthen the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is well under way.
But all our collective efforts to date are no more than a beginning. Now, a combined and determined effort is needed to ensure that concern for child rights -- and action -- suffuses not only all of the work of the United Nations, but the affairs of every country, every city, every village, and every home.
Mr. President, we are ending a century that has seen staggering technological advances and the emergence of a global economy worth nearly $30 trillion.
What is equally staggering -- and wholly obscene -- is the gulf that now separates those who enjoy the fruits of this progress from those who do not -- especially the hundreds of millions of children and women who are excluded and denied their fundamental rights.
It is paradoxical that that this gulf continues to widen at a time when there is unprecedented attention to human rights -- and when the Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically obliges donor countries to support the economic and social rights of all children through international cooperation.
Mr. President, it is imperative that as we enter the 21st Century, we start bridging this divide, because it is only by so doing that we can start to build a world of which to be proud -- a just and peaceful world, a world of hope and opportunity for all.
There are 50 days remaining before the year 2000, and on each of those days -- today and tomorrow and every day -- some 32,000 children under the age of 5 will die of preventable causes; brought down, in one way or another, by poverty and inequity and its consequences, including disease and poor nutrition, unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, illiteracy and the lack of education, and by violence and exploitation, much of it gender-based.
The certain deaths of these children -- some 12 million of them a year -- are emblematic of the ongoing challenges to child survival and well-being that we face as the old century falls away -- threats made even more daunting by the relentless spread of HIV/AIDS, and by the proliferation of armed conflict and instability, which challenge us as never before.
Thirty-five years ago, one of my three predecessors at the United Nations Children's Fund -- Henry Labouisse -- accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF.
It was a moment that summed up everything that UNICEF had become -- and everything that the agency is still working to achieve.
Its most important meaning, Labouisse said, was the solemn recognition that the survival and well-being of today's children is inseparably linked to the peace of tomorrow's world.
But by "peace," Henry Labouisse didn't just mean the absence of fighting.
He meant the slow war of attrition that poverty and ignorance is waging against hundreds of millions of children, most of them in the developing world.
The longer we tolerate that war, he said, the more likely that our hopes for lasting peace will never come to pass.
Now, on the doorstep of the 21st Century, we have seen that the truth of that warning has not changed -- not in Kosovo, or Afghanistan, or Sierra Leone, or Angola or Colombia or East Timor or any of the scores of places around the world that are engulfed in conflict and disaster -- and where children and women are suffering disproportionately.
Last month, the earth acquired its 6 billionth human inhabitant -- a child who in all probability has begun a life that will be marked by malnutrition, ill health, inadequate or no schooling, poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water -- and gender discrimination and abuse.
Yet that child, like any adult, was born endowed with fundamental human rights -- to right to life, to good health, to protection, to education, to an adequate standard of living and more.
UNICEF is unshakeably committed to building a global alliance to ensure those rights -- beginning with steps that will ensure that children are born healthy and develop in a nurturing environment; that all children are educated; and that adolescents have ample opportunities to develop and participate in a safe and enabling environment.
The knowledge, the resources and the strategies all exist to make these outcomes for children possible -- and I am convinced that with the help of governments and civil society at every level, we can make it happen within a generation.
There are no mysteries here. We know what needs to be done, we know how to do it -- and the necessary resources exist.
That is why UNICEF is preparing for a watershed occasion for children linked to the Special Session of the General Assembly in 2001 -- the crowning event in a drive to mobilize international leadership to achieve the remaining goals of the World Summit for Children; tackle the huge obstacles of poverty, HIV/AIDS and armed conflict; and establish a new agenda for children for the first years of the 21st Century.
Mr. President, the first 10 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child have taken us to a moment in history when the world may finally be ready to alter the course of human development by decisively shifting national investments to favour the best interests of children.
The opportunity lies before us -- and now is the time to seize it.