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To the Conference on Children in Europe and Central Asia

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Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:

On behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, let me begin by expressing gratitude to Germany and Bosnia and Herzegovina for organizing this Conference - the first such meeting on children and their rights to bring together Governments of Western Europe and the transition countries.

Distinguished Delegates, your work here is crucially important, for the outcome of this Conference will help inform and energise a 21st Century agenda for children - an agenda that the General Assembly will take up in September, at the Special Session on Children.

The Special Session has the potential to be a turning point. Not since the World Summit for Children in September of 1990 will the international community have had a more promising opportunity to lay the groundwork to create a world that is truly fit for all children.

The Special Session will review the achievements of the decade that began at the World Summit, when the largest group of national leaders ever convened sat down at an immense circular table - and began to talk, in frank and impassioned terms, about their responsibilities to children.

It ended with 71 heads of State and Government and 88 other high-level Summit delegates adopting a set of goals to protect the lives and diminish the suffering of children; to promote their fullest development; and to make children aware of their own needs, rights and opportunities.

Mr. President, in the years since the World Summit, we have witnessed triumphs for children and their families on a scale unlike any other - triumphs made possible by the determination of governments, multilateral organisations and the work of countless other dedicated people, including non-governmental groups and the business community.

We have seen widespread declines in under-five mortality, thanks in large part to the role of oral rehydration therapy in cutting diarrhoeal deaths by half.

We have seen similarly dramatic reductions in vaccine-preventable child deaths - and a global immunisation partnership involving governments, UN agencies, non-governmental groups and other elements of civil society whose efforts have brought polio to the brink of eradication.

Thanks to the success of national immunisation campaigns, we have seen the widespread provision of vitamin A supplements - and, after decades of precipitous decline, we have seen the life-sustaining practice of breastfeeding increase by a third in the 1990s.

Worldwide, there has been dramatic progress in tackling iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), the world's major cause of mental retardation, because of a global partnership involving governments and civil society that has made iodised salt available to an additional 1.5 billion people, which has meant protection for some 90 million infants.

Around the world, there are more children in school than ever before. And thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, child protection issues are being systematically exposed, and action taken to overcome them, from hazardous and exploitative child labour and the trafficking and abuse of children, to children in armed conflict and other forms of violence, much of it gender-based.

Increasingly, issues relevant to children are being placed high on national and global political agendas. Numerous national constitutions now include explicit provisions on children. National and local election campaigns are often dominated by child-related issues. At the United Nations, it is no longer just the UNICEF Executive Board or ECOSOC that are preoccupied with children. The General Assembly and the Security Council, for example, have acknowledged the centrality of the rights and well-being of children and women to the pursuit of international peace and security.

Indeed, the cause of children came of age at the Millennium Summit, which endorsed such specific goals as reduction of maternal and under-5 mortality, increases in primary school enrolment, and the imperative of mounting effective worldwide campaigns against HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major infectious diseases.

But for all the millions of young lives that have been saved, and for all the futures that have been enhanced, many of the Summit survival and development goals, especially in health, nutrition and education, remain unfulfilled.

Indeed, as the new Millennium began, children under the age of five were still dying at the rate of more than 10 million a year, all from preventable causes like diarrhoea, measles, and acute respiratory infections. An estimated 170 million children are malnourished, often at a cost of developmental handicaps that can last a lifetime; over 110 million children, 60 per cent of them girls, are not in school; and 1 out of every 10 children have serious disabilities.

And this toll is occurring in the face of daunting new challenges. Deepening poverty and inequity remain immense obstacles to human development. The ravages of HIV/AIDS and malaria, continuing gender discrimination and violence, declining trust in political structures - these are all issues that are having profoundly negative effects on the well-being of children.

The extent of the problem is clearly reflected in the CEE/CIS countries, where rising levels of child poverty are occurring on a significant scale for the first time in the region - with an estimated 18 million children living in absolute poverty at the end of the decade. It is a situation compounded by the unraveling of social safety nets and the collapse of health and education services in many countries, with the gravest consequences for child and family welfare.

In Western Europe, the situation of children living in poverty is a major concern, as disparities between rich and poor grow ever wider. Child poverty, though on a smaller scale, is nonetheless a challenge to the ideals of Western Europe's more affluent nations - and to their capacity to resolve many of their most intractable social problems.

At the same time, children in many parts of the world continue to be caught up in the unspeakable effects of armed conflict between States - and now, increasingly, within them - whether brutalised and exploited as child soldiers or slaves, or suffering cruelly from the effects of anti-personnel land mines and the global trafficking in small arms.

One-third of the countries in transition have experienced conflicts over the past decade, and children have paid the highest cost.

However, even in peacetime, children are increasingly the victims of more insidious forms of violence - in their homes, at school, and in their communities. Whether directly experienced or seen through the media and new technologies, violence is becoming a part of children's everyday lives across Europe and Central Asia.

In the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the world faces a threat of terrifying resilience, whose consequences for children are as devastating to humankind and as potentially long-lasting as any war in history. Make no mistake: because of this disease, and the conspiracy of silence that has so long surrounded it, children are suffering and dying in ways and in numbers that no earlier generation could have imagined possible. In some parts of the CEE/CIS region an exponentially increasing infection rate threatens to engulf these new societies unless creative preventive action is prioritised.

Yet for all of these horrors, I submit that we now stand at the most opportune moment imaginable for reaching the remaining goals that were set at the World Summit for Children - and for mobilising a global alliance dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children.

One of the most vital areas for specific action is education. In most of your countries, virtually all children already attend school. This is good - but it is not enough. Every society in the world should ask itself whether its schools are really preparing children for life - and take the steps necessary to enhance the quality and relevance of what and how children learn.

The countries of Europe and Central Asia have crucially important roles to play in accelerating and giving substance to this growing crusade, which has come to be called the Global Movement for Children.

Distinguished Delegates, it is vital that all 52 countries participating in this Conference this week - along with all other countries - institute laws that will protect and foster children's rights - and allocate the human and financial resources necessary to put those rights into practice.
Indeed, it is UNICEF's hope that based on the end-decade reviews - as well as the draft outcome document for the Special Session on Children - that each country will prepare its own 10-15 year plan of action for, and with, children.

But the support of governments alone will not ensure that the rights of children are fully realised. Non-governmental organisations as well as the private sector, including the media; academics, artists, intellectuals, parliamentarians, community-based organisations, parents and young people themselves - all must work in partnership with governments.

The building of partnerships for children is important for all 52 participating countries - but particularly so for the countries in transition, where civil society is still emerging and developing. That is why the recent NGO consultation in Bucharest, as well as a statement from young people who participated in the Budapest consultation three weeks ago, are of central importance to your deliberations here in Berlin.

Mr. President, there are a considerable number of donor countries represented at this Conference, many of whom are working to refocus development cooperation policy in favour of a world fit for children. I commend them for their wisdom and solidarity, in hopes that their example will be emulated by all donor countries. Increased resource provision for children is not only a moral and ethical imperative, it is highly cost-effective - what economists call investment in social capital. Investing fully in children today will ensure the well-being and productivity of future generations for decades to come -but we must be mindful that returns on these investments will materialise only if they are sustained over the long term.

I would also call your attention to the many excellent reports that have been submitted that review progress over the past decade. They have, for the most part, been prepared in a highly consultative manner.

Mr. President, there are clearly a number of remaining problems to overcome, some of them matters that demand urgent attention. A major threat to the region's children continues to be iodine deficiency disorders, which are leaving vast numbers of children mentally impaired for life. For many countries of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the simple solution of iodized salt is not available. Indeed, 74 per cent of the people have no access to iodised salt - the lowest access rate in the world. And even certain countries in Western Europe are not exempt from the problem.

Distinguished Delegates, as I noted at the beginning of my remarks, your work this week is part of a transparent and participatory process that will carry over to the Special Session on Children in September.

Your leadership is essential if we are to mobilise a global commitment to children for the first part of this new century - a commitment that UNICEF believes will spark a momentous shift in national investments to favour the survival, protection, full development and participation of all children.

That is why UNICEF has every expectation that heads of State and Government will appoint Personal Representatives to attend the final Preparatory Committee meeting that begins on June 11 - and that top national leaders will themselves come to the Special Session with specific commitments, including action plans that involve civil society, especially children and young people themselves. For they, along with NGOs and countless others in civil society, have key roles to play in mobilising groups and encouraging action locally. And there are exciting possibilities in the prospect of development partnerships with the business community and the private sector.

But in the final analysis, Mr. President, it is governments who remain the primary actors in development - and it is they who must lead.

And as you well know, it was governments that declared, on September 30, 1990, that "there is no task nobler than to give every child a better future."

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates: may your work this week be animated by that same spirit.

Thank you.


 

 

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