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Remembering the birth of a Child

By: Nils Kastberg

 

Having arrived at the most important festive period in our hemisphere - remembering the birth of a Child and reaching another 31 December, the end of a cycle and the opening of another page of life and work, also calls for particular reflexion for us working in UNICEF.

 

The Child we celebrate and remember was not a privileged child. Some of the circumstances surrounding his birth would be of concern to our colleagues from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with whom we share our office building these days. He was born after his teenage mother had traveled many days on a donkey. He was born outside a health facility and we would certainly consider being born in a stable as an example of exclusion in public policies, as well as part of social exclusion. The reasons causing such a high risk teenage birth, threatening the life of the mother, was a completely politicized census, imposed by force. Up to here, we could say this touches on all the topics which form part of the UNFPA mandate and our colleagues in Panamerican Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) would support us in UNICEF for the improvement in the delivery of basic equipment and services to health facilities so that these type of births would not have to happen again.

 

The only ones who seemed to appreciate this child in his first days of life, apart from his parents, were strangers traveling from east, who probably with their gifts, gave financial support at a key moment in the life of this family, in a society which did not have social protection, something that today would be analyzed by the Economic Comission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations Development (UNDP), at least, as they clearly lived under the poverty line, living with less than the basic family food basket, and perhaps borderline to living in extreme poverty. These gifts might have provided the financial base, in addition to the domestic animal they possessed, the donkey, that were needed for them to undertake their drastic flight shortly after, but more on that later.

 

This child was born into an oppressive government system, dictatorial and a brutal military regime, and I suspect that our colleagues from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would have been promoting that the international community raise its voice denouncing the situation, preparing a draft resolution for the Human Rights Council in Geneva. UNDP would have raised issues of governance and rule of law, led by the local Resident Coordinator, although he probably feared doing so would risk him or her being declared “persona non-grata”.

 

The killing of children which took place shortly after his birth – at the time it was estimated that over two thousand children under the age of two were sought after and brutally slaughtered – would today be reported to the Security Council for their consideration of appropriate measures, by the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on Violence against Children, whose designation by the UN Secretary General has been in the making this year. In this work he or she would be supported by the excellent colleagues Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative on violence against children in armed conflict, who on a daily basis denounces and makes visible the situation and the brutalities committed against children in conflict and wars. The Human Rights Council would most likely condemn this brutality against children in its March session, and they would discuss if this represented genocide. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, our Argentinean colleague Moreno, would immediately start gathering information, documentation and proofs, in order to take those responsible before the Court.

 

The brutality and imminent danger to his life, made of him and his parents, refugees. If two thousand children died in these killing fields, then we are talking of thousands of affected families, perhaps ten to twenty thousand children, parents, grandparents terrorized, traumatized, who in the ensuing insecurity, seeing such brutality, would try to flee immediately and seek refuge in a safe place. This child and his parents, foreseeing what was in the making, fled to Egypt, where UNHCR would today have been collaborating with the local authorities to secure asylum, to ensure they would not be forcibly returned to their country of origin against their will, and to promote they be given refugee status, as part of its protection responsibilities. The World Food Programme (WFP) would be mobilizing ships, trucks, staff, to organize food distribution to protect their right to food. In UNICEF, together with others, we would support UNHCR and WFP in this difficult task. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) would convene us to coordinate the joint planning, action and advocacy, and process the first allocation of emergency fund resources.

 

At this time there was no Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), who would have been supporting the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCR) in the refugee reception, nor the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who would be negotiating so that it could help those wounded along the way, or seeking access to the prisons where many would have been thrown into without any due process, seeking to document their names so that they would exist, so that their anxious and desperate relatives could receive a letter from them announcing that they were alive and had hope because of the visit of the Red Cross.

 

Perhaps the Security Council would take measures, in pursuing the maintenance of international peace, through the interposition of forces between the roman forces which occupied the area, and Egypt, so that the human flow fleeing this persecution would not be pursued and to avoid the brutality of this military regime continued its attempts against international peace and security. Soldiers from as diverse countries as Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Jordan, Nepal, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Guatemala or El Salvador, today serving in Congo, in Haiti or in the Middle East, would be serving under a personality such as our colleague SRSG Sergio Vieira de Mello, who died with 21 other colleagues while performing such function under bombs which destroyed his office in Bagdad over five years ago, and serving under the direction of the UN Secretary General’s Department of Peace Keeping Operations. The media would use the resolution number as a household number – “1612” or “242” or whatever number would be given to the resolution that would contain the decision of the fifteen members of the Security Council, to establish the mandate and send the forces for such peace-keeping operation.

 

It was clear that the communications system of the Romans were sophisticated, in proclaiming that the measures taken were justified as part of international measures needed to establish and maintain “pax romana” in territories with multiple ethnic and religious tensions. NGOs and members of civil society would protest in the face of such fallacy, such falsehood, and denounce the atrocities committed against children. Save the Children Alliance would join the barricades letting the world know what was happening. Plan International would offer support, and Médecins Sans Frontiëres would have nurses and medical doctors in the refugee camps in Egypt or along the road between Jerusalem and Alexandria, many in the desert, without water, their means of transport damaged and their lives in danger. Perhaps the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) would have also supported the refugees if it was today.

 

The role of the Churches preoccupies me: in the chronicles I cannot see that the religious leaders at the time played a role in denouncing and in supporting the victims and those affected by the crimes committed against children. Perhaps this child was remembering with anguish the stories of their flight that his parents told him during childhood, when he three decades later denounced in a clear way what it meant to be suffering along the roadside, with the Priest and the Levite accelerating their steps, not to help, but to get away, as perhaps the robbers where still in the area. The level of detail with which the situation of the wounded is detailed, and the description of the good Samaritan who cares up to the full recovery of the affected person, making sure he gets help, lodging, food, can only be given by someone who lived through this himself, or at least describes what he wished would have happened.

 

In spite of all this, his name was registered, he had parents that protected him, and when voluntarily returning to his home country as a returnee, as he enters adolescence, we see he had a good education and broad knowledge, he had developed an independent mind and was able to argue with adults who were experts in their topics, but who also seemed to treat him with respect and accept his viewpoints and interpretations.

 

Still, what is above could be a description of the reality faced by many children and adolescents today. That is what we are fighting to change. I hope we don’t become bureaucrats who for the sake of having other priorities, appointments, workplans, cannot face up to the realities of our neighbour.

 

In any UNICEF context, the biblical words are startling when it says: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” implying it is a child. After all, what we in UNICEF would like is that the kingdoms and countries on earth make the superior interest of the child its guiding principle and the first priority in all public policies of the each government and each society, and this is what we have stated in our mid-term strategic plan, focus area five.

 

The illustration that follows is also impacting: “He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” A child that has survived killing fields, knows the importance that adults not see children as objects, but as subjects of rights, with the right to life and survival as the fundamental ones for all other rights to be fulfilled. In his kingdom, to be a child is the ideal to strive for if we want a world without killings, in peace.

 

From the point of view of protection, I don’t know which protection officer would say “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  If we placed billboards with this text outside hotels alerting those who while traveling wish to abuse girls, or if we placed these billboards in the streets where adult criminals move around seeking to recruit children into violence, I wonder what we would be told. Still, this strong alert on the use and abuse of children was made two thousand years ago.

 

“…it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” leaves no doubt about the objective of this leader. We would wish the same commitment in 2009 from every President, Minister, Governor, Mayor, so we lower the four hundred thousand preventable deaths of children under five that otherwise would die in 2009 in our region.

 

Thinking of the journey this child undertook to return to his home country, thirsty when passing through the desert, where perhaps someone gave him a glass of cold water to him and his parents, it is no surprise that years later, he would consider that even a glass of cold water to a child would be greatly rewarded.

 

The celebration of the birth of a child, and what this child later in life would say about children, beyond faith and religion, provides important lessons for us today. I feel that much of the ornaments, the consumerism, the materialism and commercialism surrounding these festivities has nothing to do with the history I see painted before us and reflected in these two thousand year old chronicles. Celebrating 60 children with special abilities, many abandoned in homes they seldom leave, as I saw the family of one of the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors, do a few days ago, is closer to the real Christmas spirit, and I know many in known or less known ways, do so.

 

As we enter and celebrate these festivities, and as we start the New Year, let the real story and not the Santa Claus fantasy inspire us. Let us seek how we can look for and put excluded children and adolescent in the centre of our contexts. Let us continue doing this throughout 2009 in our daily work, and then I hope that by next Christmas, we will have made greater progress in ensuring this is not a hope for the kingdom of heaven, but for peace, wellbeing, happiness we wish children, adolescents and all women and men here on earth.

 

Happy festivities!

 

Nils Kastberg

 

Regional Director

UNICEF

Latin America and the Caribbean

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About UNICEF
UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

 

 
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