Press centre

Speeches

To the World Affairs Councils of America

UNICEF Image

New York - 12 January 2001

Excellencies, President Leach, Chairman Whitehead and other Members of the World Affairs Councils of America, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am delighted to join you today - and honoured by this opportunity to address the World Affairs Councils, a nationwide organisation that has distinguished itself through its efforts to promote enlightened public discussion of vital international issues.

The relationship between the United Nations and the United States of America is most emphatically a vital issue - and we owe Jerry Leach and the Foreign Policy Association a special thanks not only for making it the theme of this National Conference, but for bringing the Conference here.

I also want to thank the Secretary-General for his part in making this event possible, and to recognise the additional support and assistance of Under-Secretary-General Desai; Ambassador Holbrooke; Ambassador Mahbubani; and Mark Malloch Brown of UNDP.

Ladies and Gentlemen, a Martian landing in the midst of the US presidential campaign and its extraordinary aftermath might have come away thinking that there were only four issues of overarching importance to Americans: tax cuts, prescription drugs, a missile defence - and which candidate looked better on Oprah.

As this audience is well aware, the full list is somewhat longer. It takes in such immense and depressing features of the human landscape as poverty, inequity, discrimination, environmental degradation, social upheaval, joblessness, terrorism and natural disasters - all of them matters of global importance, regardless of the day-to-day attention that is, and is often not, paid them by politicians and the mainstream media.

Yet I would submit that there is one truly overarching issue - one that is not only relevant to every major global problem, but also implicit in the solution of each - and that is the survival and well-being of the world's children.

There are few national leaders who do not understand in their bones that the future of every country is directly linked to the future of its children - and that by investing in children and in the families that sustain them, a country is ultimately investing in its own development.

Children are the bearers of our common future. The entire community of nations acknowledged as much when they embraced the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child - and vowed, a decade ago, to fulfil the goals of the World Summit for Children.

Thanks to the determination of governments, multilateral organisations and the work of countless other dedicated people, including non-governmental groups and the business community (many of them UNICEF partners), the world has witnessed triumphs for children and their families on a scale unlike any other.

Thanks to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is now widespread recognition that every child, no matter how poor or otherwise marginalised, has a whole galaxy of fundamental rights: the right to health and nutrition, to a primary education of good quality, especially for girls; to clean water and adequate sanitation, to gender equality; and to freedom from exploitation and abuse.

Moreover, children have a right to have a name and a nationality - as well as to express themselves freely and, in line with their evolving capacities, to participate in decisions that affect them.

This wide recognition of the rights of children is not merely rhetorical - far from it. In scores of countries, in every region of the world, the importance of child rights is reflected in concrete changes in law, in policy, and in practice.

As a result, the1990s were a time of remarkable progress toward the World Summit goals in a variety of areas - including:

As the new Millennium began, children under the age of 5 were still dying at the rate of 11 million a year, all from preventable causes like diarrhoea, measles, and acute respiratory infections, while 170 million children are malnourished, often at a cost of developmental handicaps that can last a lifetime; over 100 million children, the majority of them girls, never see the inside of a 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, including the burden of external debt; gender discrimination and violence, environmental degradation, terrorism, and natural disasters.

At the same time, children 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 as a result of anti-personnel land mines or the global trafficking in small arms.

And 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.

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.

There is, for one thing, growing evidence of political will.

In recent years, we have seen the transforming effects of global solidarity in confronting common threats. We can point with pride to the adoption of the worldwide ban on anti-personnel landmines; and in the international consensus to confront atrocities and the culture of impunity, which resulted in a global agreement - signed last week by the United States - that will create an International Criminal Court.

Second, we stand at an extraordinarily opportune moment because we now know so much more.

Thomas Edison, in one of his rare non-working moments, was once quoted as saying that "we don't know half of one-millionth of 1 per cent about anything."

He may have been right at the time he made his remark, in the 1930s. But it is safe to say that since then, human knowledge and understanding have increased somewhat. We may even have broken the 1 percent mark.

Whatever the number, we know a great deal more today about how best to ensure the rights of children and address their needs. And certainly one of the biggest light bulbs to go off above our heads is the knowledge, borne out by the latest scientific research and affirmed by years of practical experience, that what happens to children in the earliest years of their lives is absolutely crucial not only to their future, but to the future of all our societies.

We know, too, that it is crucial to ensure that every girl and boy receives a primary education of good quality; and that every adolescent is afforded ample opportunity to develop and to participate meaningfully in society.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the future is in our hands as never before.

For if we know anything, it is that in a $30 trillion global economy, the knowledge, the resources and the strategies already exist to give children the best possible start in life, educate them, and help them navigate the complex passage from adolescence to adulthood - outcomes that are crucial first steps if we are to break the endless cycle of global poverty.

As the Secretary-General has pointed out in his foreword to UNICEF's annual Report, The State of the World's Children 2001, assuring every child a good start in life is where we must begin, because a healthy and happy child is a child who is ready for school and learning.

Every year, some 129 million babies around the world begin an extraordinary developmental sprint - from defenceless new-borns to pro-active 3-year-olds. And every year, countless numbers of them are stopped in their tracks - deprived, in one way or another, of the love, care, nurturing, health, nutrition and safe environment that they need to grow, develop - and to learn.

The need to protect and nurture children in early childhood should merit the highest priority when governments make decisions about laws, policies, programmes and money. Yet, tragically, both for children and for countries, these are the years that receive the least attention.

Yet we now know, for example, that the first 36 months of a child's life are when neural connections in the brain are at a crucial stage, ready to be developed through social and physical interactions and enriched by good nutrition and health - or left to atrophy.

These are not just any neural cells - they are the connections that enable a child to perceive the world, to walk and talk, to remember experiences, learn skills, feel emotion, establish and maintain social relations and make decisions. All of this has been confirmed by neuroscientists and others - and by the hands-on experience that UNICEF and its partners have amassed in working with children.

Indeed, early childhood care is an approach that includes a broader definition of care than what we have used in the past, one that encompasses the practices and actions not only of a child's mother or health-care worker, but the entirety of a child's world - his or her home and family, community, country and culture.

It includes the basic premise that caring for the child means supporting the crucial role of parents and families in ensuring the right of all children to grow up in a safe, stable and nurturing environment.

This includes caring for the mother, and caring about the conditions she faces at home and in society at large. For in societies where women have no voice, limited access to resources, little or no legal protection and no respect, optimal child development is impossible.

It also means supporting the role of men, who must address these issues if we are to dispel the attitudes that create inequality and that reduce women and children to second-class citizens.

Early childhood care also means that UNICEF and its partners must continue to build on our decades of experience about what good care for children means: that they receive sound nutrition, beginning with the enormous benefits that are conferred by breastfeeding; that they have access to safe drinking water, uncontaminated food and unpolluted air. That they live where there is adequate sanitation and waste-disposal practices. That their environments be healthy and free of disease. And that they be protected from injury, with the time and space to play, to explore and to learn.

Early child care also means building on the last decade of learning that we have amassed in promoting implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is knowledge that has been tested in the real world - about caring for, and empowering children by providing them with love and affection, in environments where they can explore and discover and learn skills that they can use throughout their lives.

Ladies and Gentlemen, providing all this would be a formidable challenge at any time. It is especially daunting now, when so many past advances for children are being undermined by poverty, and by armed conflict and infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria.

That is why UNICEF is calling on governments to reduce the burden of external debt so that impoverished countries can invest in children instead of debt service; and why we are urging them to redirect resources within their national budgets for early childhood development programmes.

It is why we are pressing the global community to work harder to end armed conflict and to ensure that resources are invested in children, not armaments.

It is why we asking leaders at all levels to redouble their efforts to end discrimination against women.

It is why we are asking governments, civil society organisations and the private sector, including corporations and the media industry, to join in waging an all-out battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

And it is why UNICEF and many NGO partners are working to mobilise citizens of every nation, including families, communities, and civil society organisations, to carry the banner of a Global Movement for Children - an unstoppable crusade aimed at ending, at long last, the poverty, ill health, violence and discrimination that has needlessly blighted and destroyed so many young lives.

It is an effort that we have every expectation will lend extra momentum to a major event that will occur at the United Nations in September - the General Assembly's Special Session on Children.

The Special Session promises to be the most pivotal event for children in a decade. For it offers an unparalleled opportunity not only for a high-level review of progress since the 1990 World Summit for Children - but to re-energise the international commitment to realising a global vision for children now and in the years to come.

Building a Global Movement for Children is no small undertaking. It will entail enlisting the active support not only of established leaders, but people of influence representing all of civil society, from non-governmental organisations, religious groups and business and private enterprise to people's movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families - and children themselves.

Thanks to former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and his wife, Graça Machel, the former Education Minister of Mozambique, the work has already begun. They have assumed a direct and personal role in organising a global partnership of leaders from every sphere to act on a basic recognition - that if we want a more just, equitable and thriving world, we must invest in children now.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I fervently believe that together we can build that world - secure in the knowledge that in serving the best interests of children, we will serve the best interests of all humanity.

Thank you.


 

 

New enhanced search