Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:
No one is more vulnerable than a child when it comes to the monstrous effects of racism, discrimination and intolerance. These pervasive evils compromise the right of children to survive, to develop, and to reach their fullest potential - and that is why children must be a central theme of this Conference.
Children are a force for positive change. But for too long, countless numbers of them have been the hidden targets of discrimination, unreflected in statistics - and themselves exploited as purveyors of racial discrimination and xenophobia.
In that connection, Mr. President, this Conference could not be more timely. In less than three weeks, more than 75 heads of State and Government will gather in New York for the biggest international meeting on child rights in more than a decade - the General Assembly Special Session on Children. There, national leaders will chart a 21st Century course to assure child rights while reaffirming their commitment to end discrimination.
The process involves a wide-ranging review of progress made for children since 1990 - and there the leaders will find a picture that is decidedly mixed: unprecedented success mingled with dispiriting setbacks.
Because of political action at the highest level, the world has witnessed significant gains for children in the fight against preventable diseases and malnutrition, in increased access to education, in the promotion of breast-feeding and early childhood care and development, and in access to safe water. As a result, three million more children will survive the year 2001 than survived in 1990.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is built on the bedrock principle of non-discrimination, has become the most ratified human rights instrument in history - and led to changes in national law and policy that have helped improve the lives of children the world over.
Mr. President, this is remarkable progress, literally unimaginable half a century ago. Yet millions of children continue to be denied access to basic social services. Many are from minority or indigenous communities and include migrants, refugees or asylum-seekers.
They include the more than 10 million children who still die each year of preventable causes; the 149 million children in developing countries who still suffer from malnutrition, and the more than 100 million children, 60 per cent of them girls, who are not in school - and who fall prey in vast numbers to trafficking, sexual violence and commercial sexual exploitation.
That is why we hope and expect that world leaders at this Conference - as well as at the Special Session - will pledge their support for a new set of commitments to children, including steps to ensure that public policy and law address the plight of all vulnerable groups.
In honouring those commitments, we must build a world that is fit for all children - a world where no child is left out. To that end, former President Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel, the former Education Minister of Mozambique, have assumed a direct and personal role in organising a global partnership of leaders from every walk of life to act on a basic recognition - that if we want a more just, equitable and thriving world, we must invest in children now.
And so UNICEF is promoting two steps: the strengthening of systems to collect and analyse data on children, including detailed information that exposes the everyday reality of the racism and discrimination they experience. And we are urging governments to monitor the potential impact of their policies and programmes on children as we work together to ensure the realisation of child rights.
If children are to promote the values of equity, tolerance and respect for diversity that are so essential for democratic societies, we must help them build their skills, their sense of responsibility and their self-confidence. And for that, we must assure every child's right to an education of good quality. UNICEF will push hard for a major focus on education at the Special Session - and we applaud this Conference for highlighting education's essential role.
Mr. President, education is vital to children, including those belonging to minorities, indigenous communities or other vulnerable groups. It gives them the chance to develop into responsible members of society - to take part in decisions, assume responsibilities, and to resolve their conflicts in a peaceful way. A good quality education also helps child victims of violence, abuse or exploitation recover - and helps them develop the skills to protect themselves against future violations of their rights.
To do all of this, schools must be safe havens, free from the attitudes and practices that perpetuate intolerance. They must embody respect for diversity and human rights, including the right to be equal and the right to be different.
That is why UNICEF is working with partners in many countries and at every level to support such measures as Education for Peace programmes. In some countries, we support the production of materials in local languages. At the same time, we are working with education ministries, teachers and communities to value cultural identity, promote pluralism and social inclusion.
Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates: Every one of us has a role to play in ending discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion. But it is children themselves who embody humanity's hopes for a better world - and UNICEF passionately believes that by ensuring the right of all children to reach their full potential, we will be on a path to end, at long last, the vicious cycle of exclusion, intolerance and discrimination. Thank you.