Ladies and gentlemen,
It is particularly fitting for us to be launching this report on “Childhood under Threat” in this great city – Berlin. Berliners and Germans certainly know first hand what childhood under threat can be like, having experienced it during two catastrophic world wars and the cold war that followed.
This year’s UNICEF report focuses on how poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS threaten the ideal of childhood – a period when we expect children to play and study as they grow and develop to their full potential.
The loss of childhood has vast, lifelong implications. Germany, the country that invented the kindergarten and pioneered in the field of early childhood development theory and practice, knows this well.
So what does this report say?
It says that for children in the world these are perhaps the best of times and the worst of times.
Never before in human history did we have so much commitment for the protection of the rights of children and promotion of their well being.
Yet never before did the children of the world suffer the brutalities, abuse and exploitation as they do in our times.
Today we have the world’s most universally ratified human rights treaty: the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It outlines in great detail every child’s inalienable right to life, to health, education, and protection against violence, exploitation and discrimination.
It affirms that “the best interests of the child” should be the guiding principle in all our actions concerning children.
We had a historic Summit for Children in 1990 that brought together the largest gathering of world leaders and adopted many ambitious goals for children. It promised to give a “first call for children” in the allocation of our resources, in good times and bad.
In 2000 we had a Millennium Summit which adopted many human development goals to eradicate poverty and to improve the lives of children.
Then in 2002 we had a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on children. It resolved to create “A World Fit for Children”, to promote healthy lives, to provide quality education, to combat HIV/AIDS and to protect children from abuse, exploitation, violence and discrimination.
Indeed, as this report says, children today live longer, are healthier, better educated and have access to sports, recreation, entertainment, information and communication that their parents and grand parents could not even dream about.
And yet, children today are in greater peril than ever before.
For half the world’s children, a billion youngsters who live in abject poverty and deprivation, these are perhaps the “worst of times”.
In this world of extraordinary prosperity:
• 10.6 million children under the age of 5 continue to die every year, most from easily preventable causes like diarrhoea and pneumonia, measles and malaria. This means a daily toll of 30,000 child deaths, or the equivalent of 60 jumbo jets filled to capacity crashing every day;
Ladies and gentlemen,
Poverty is not just confined to developing countries. It is found even in the richest countries of the world. In the United States of America, an estimated 14 million children live in poverty.
Right here in Berlin and Germany the high rates of unemployment force many children and families to live in poverty.
As our time is short, let me focus here on conflict and HIV/AIDS.
There have always been wars and conflict throughout human history. But what is disturbing about today’s wars is that their main victims and even targets are increasingly civilians, especially women and children.
We all watched in horror the monstrosity of children held hostages in their own school in Beslan, Russia. Held at gunpoint, denied food and water, and even the dignity of using toilets, the cynical use of children for political purposes is the face of terrorism at its worst.
The plight of children in Beslan caught the attention of the world as it was televised for us all to see.
But imagine the plight of 44,000 children who, for fear of abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, seek refuge every night in towns many kilometres away from their home.
Imagine mothers who love their children so much that because they are powerless to offer them safety in their own homes, they send them off to be herded like cattle in faraway towns out of reach of the militia that would use them as sex slaves, porters and child soldiers.
The tragedy of these “night commuters” of Northern Uganda, little known to the outside world, is among the worst violations of child rights in our times.
But this is not unique. In my home country, Nepal, children by the thousands are routinely abducted from their schools by the Maoist insurgents. They are forced to march to unknown destinations for political indoctrination, and some are forced or enticed into joining the Maoist guerrillas.
Imagine the feeling of terror and anguish in the minds and hearts of parents who send their children to school, not knowing if they will return home after school; not knowing where they will be taken and how they will be treated, and feeling totally powerless to do anything about it.
Closer to Germany, you have watched the wars in the Balkans where girls and women were raped and sexual violence was used as a deliberate weapon of war. We are seeing this today in massive scale in DR Congo and Darfur, Sudan, and elsewhere.
The pandemic of HIV/AIDS is posing another alarming and lethal threat to children. Last year, 2.9 million people died of AIDS, including almost half a million children under age 15.
The number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS worldwide reached 15 million last year.
Think of that number again – 15 million orphans. That is equivalent to all of Germany’s children being orphans.
Imagine the shock and tragedy we would all feel if all of Germany’s children lost one or both parents. That is precisely what is happening in large parts of Africa today.
Well, what can be done about these problems of poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS?
The report gives many examples of practical actions we can take. Investing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals universally agreed at the United Nations would go a long way towards tackling these problems and creating a world more fit for children.
Never before did humankind have the resources and capacity to do so much good, to reach so many, to work with the poor and oppressed, to promote human transformation, to seek justice.
Today we live in very prosperous times, in a $30 trillion world economy – where someone new becomes a billionaire every 2 weeks.
We live in a world where global military expenditures are rising towards the $1 trillion mark. That amounts to UNICEF’s annual budget being spent every 2 days for military personnel and armaments.
Yet in this world of great affluence, and profligate spending on weapons and luxuries, we have 1.3 billion people living on less than $1 a day – more than half of them children.
Surely, we can do much more to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
And what could Germany - Europe’s largest economy, and the world’s third largest do?
Germany was a beneficiary of the Marshall Plan and was rebuilt from the ashes of its destruction after the Second World War. More recently, Germany has done a Herculean job to rebuild East Germany. So Germany perhaps has more experience than any other nation on how to rebuild nations and societies that are in shambles.
As Germany justifiably aspires to be a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, it would be fitting for it to champion and lead a global Marshall Plan for Children.
2005 is a perfect year for such a leadership by Germany. Next year the UN will be considering both the restructuring of the United Nations, including the Security Council, and reviewing progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.
It would be so fitting and magnificent if Germany could take a leadership position on both.
I know Germany currently has huge budget problems. Therefore, an immediate, modest but feasible way to initiate such a global leadership role would be for Germany to announce that it will substantially increase its voluntary contribution to UNICEF.
Today Germany is number # 16 among donor countries in its contribution to UNICEF. It contributes only a paltry 5 million Euros per year – far less than its much smaller neighbours like Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries.
By contrast, the people of Germany are among the most generous contributors to UNICEF.
At the very least, the Government of Germany should try to match the contributions made by its people through the German National Committee for UNICEF. That would bring the German contribution closer to being the number #3 donor to UNICEF which is where Germany rightfully belongs.
But money alone is not enough. We would like Germany to take a leadership role in promoting the Millennium Development goals and rights of children both here at home and abroad. One meaningful action would be for Germany to embrace the Convention on the Rights of the Child without any reservations.
In a panel of the report entitled “A Willing World Can End Child Poverty” the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that “Lack of resources is not, and cannot be, an excuse…We should not view the eradication of poverty among children as simply a matter of self-interest. It is a question of what is morally right.”
I would appeal to Germany and all other nations and peoples of the world to do what is morally right, and help build a world fit for our children.