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To the Annual Meeting of the UNICEF Executive Board

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New York - 4 June 2001

Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues, Friends:

It is a pleasure to join President Abelian in welcoming you to this, our Annual Meeting for 2001.

Distinguished Delegates, 55 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II, the General Assembly sent this agency forth with an emergency mandate for children - to advocate for the protection of their rights, to help meet their basic needs, and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential.

That postwar world has changed almost beyond recognition. The "emergency" in UNICEF's original name has passed. But 55 years later, who can deny that an emergency situation still exists - one even more daunting in scale and complexity?

Is it not an emergency that hundreds of millions of children are suffering in extreme poverty and inequity, their lives torn asunder by the catastrophic spread of HIV/AIDS; by armed conflict; by the crushing burden of external debt; and by gender discrimination and violence, environmental degradation and natural disasters?

Is it not an emergency that as the new Millennium began, children under the age of 5 were dying at a rate of more than 10 million a year, all from easily preventable causes like diarrhoea, measles, and acute respiratory infections?

Is it not an emergency that nearly 150 million children are malnourished, often at a cost of mental and physical handicaps that can last a lifetime; that over 100 million children, 60 per cent of them girls, never see the inside of a school; and that 1 out of every 10 children in the world have serious disabilities?

Mr. President, much has changed in 55 years. But as Maurice Pate, Henry Labouisse and Jim Grant knew full well, the rights and needs of children are immutable. And so UNICEF has worked tirelessly to generate political will at the highest levels, to mobilise resources far beyond our country programmes, and to win the loyalty of a worldwide public constituency.

This strategy, combined with UNICEF's all-encompassing focus on the well-being of the "whole child," has made this agency a moral force for children the world over. It is why the Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force more rapidly and overwhelmingly than any human rights treaty in history. It is why the World Summit for Children drew the largest gathering of national leaders ever seen - and inspired them to make a solemn commitment to give every child a better future. And it is why, in the General Assembly's Special Session on Children four months from now, we are on the verge of the most momentous juncture yet in the crusade for child survival and development.

Mr. President, I am pleased to report that preparations for the Special Session are moving ahead with dispatch, from Beijing to Berlin, from Minsk to Kathmandu, and from Marrakech to Cairo.

In four regional meetings last month in Asia and Europe and Africa - and late last year in Latin America and the Caribbean - I saw firsthand the seriousness and resolve with which the situation of children is being addressed beyond the UN System - not only by governments, multilateral organisations and NGOs, but by communities, grassroots and religious groups, the private sector, families - and by children and young people themselves.

The voices of children are a vital element of the process we are engaged in, and I was gratified to see how prominent a role children have been able to play in the regional-level interaction. Indeed, the discussions at last month's Berlin Conference on Children in Europe and Central Asia were informed by UNICEF's Young Voices poll, which reflected the views of over 93 million children from 35 countries.

Distinguished Delegates, I have every hope that the extraordinary vitality and commitment of those regional discussions will carry over to the preparatory process here in New York - and help us chart an action-oriented path to the remaining Summit goals - along with a powerful and focused agenda for children that addresses the challenges of the 21st Century as it builds on the successes of the 1990s.

Those successes, in such areas as under-5 survival, nutrition, access to primary education and safe drinking water, and the promotion of breastfeeding standards, would not have been possible without the convergence of strategy, resources and action that the UN and its agencies have worked to promote.

Nor could they have been achieved without the vital partnerships that have developed between governments, donors, the UN System and other international institutions, and elements of civil society at every level.

Now we must expand and strengthen those partnerships, as the Secretary-General has personally committed the UN System to do in building a global coalition to fight HIV/AIDS. As Stephen Lewis, the new Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, noted last week, there are signs that real progress may finally be possible - and it is hard to imagine a more timely opportunity for decisive action than next month's UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS.

As outgoing chair of the UNAIDS Committee of Co-sponsoring Organisations, UNICEF has played a leading role in helping to raise the level of collaborative planning - and we intend to bring that same spirit of collaboration to UNICEF's upcoming tenure as chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), where we will affirm UNICEF's continuing commitment to immunization with both regular resources (RR) and other resources (OR.).

Distinguished Delegates, we have a full agenda before us this week.

It includes presentation of the Executive Director's Annual Report on progress and achievements against the Medium-Term Plan; mid-term reviews and major evaluations of country programmes; consideration of UNICEF's experience with sector-wide approaches (SWAPS); an update on UNICEF's Africa Strategy, including a presentation on child rights in Africa; and a review of immunization activities, including the worrisome funding shortfall for polio eradication, which I am very grateful to note has been reduced by $30 million - to $370 million - thanks to a generous donation by the Government of Japan.

I will also have something to say about UNICEF's most precious resource - our staff - and the ongoing issue of their security, and what you as Board members can most usefully do to help guarantee it.

Finally, we will be providing a full update on the status of preparations for the Special Session on Children - including our deep concern about a funding shortfall of $1.7 million, which I appeal to you to help us close as quickly as possible.

Mr. President, in past opening statements, I have occasionally used the opportunity to address a specific area of concern. Today I want to take a moment to talk about the trafficking of children, which is much in the news these days. Just last week, for example, 98 trafficked children - 19 girls and 79 boys - were returned by Cote d'Ivoire to authorities in Burkina Faso after they were intercepted at a border crossing.

Like so many other similar episodes around the world - including the widely reported case of a ship that left Benin last March carrying a still-unknown number of trafficked children - last week's incident is a tiny part of an immense iceberg. But the fact that it drew the attention of the media is of interest.

Trafficking is news these days in large part because it is so shocking for the public to learn, early in the 21st Century, that millions of children are routinely bought and sold like chattel, trafficked within and across borders, and thrust into situations from which they may never escape - situations like forced labour, forced marriage, prostitution, and illegal adoption.

Children are trafficked for many reasons - as domestic or agricultural laborers, for adoption, or for purposes of sexual exploitation, to name a few.

All this is shocking. But there is another reason why trafficking is now an on-going news story - and it has to do with how much more sensitized the global public has become toward the problem.

The role of non-governmental organisations in extending assistance and raising public awareness has been a crucial element, along with efforts by UNICEF, the International Labour Organization and others. Last year in Gabon, for example, UNICEF and the ILO sponsored a conference on child trafficking that drew representatives of 21 West and Central African countries.

UNICEF is also a backer of the global NGO Support Group, which links key NGOs with United Nations partners, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Such partnerships are already helping to improve legislative measures, law enforcement and programmes for the recovery of children through alternative education and employment opportunities.

But it is also clear that only by ensuring girls and women full equality and opportunity in all spheres of life can we begin to attack the roots of trafficking. Racial inequality and ethnic discrimination must also be confronted, for they are factors that often determine who is sexually exploited and who is spared.

In all of this, we need to strengthen international cooperation and action at every level of every society. This includes working together to identify and bring to justice culpable individuals and criminal networks.

If we want to end child trafficking, we must emphasise prevention, including community-based early warning and support systems to ensure that children are not abused, and that families are less likely to be tricked or deluded into selling their children into bondage of any kind.

And we must help children who have been exploited to find productive and healthy alternatives, and to rejoin their communities as responsible citizens. For this they need health care and information, skills training and education, protection from violence, psychological counselling, programmes against substance abuse - and above all, love and acceptance.

None of this, of course, will come about by itself. Governments and civil society need to keep the pressure up - and that is why UNICEF attaches so much importance to upcoming Yokahama conference, which will seek to build on the outcome of the 1996 World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.

Distinguished Delegates, the worldwide movement that produced the Convention on the Rights of the Child has helped generate pressure to protect the rights of all children, including children in war; children performing hazardous or exploitative labour; children exposed to violence; children in extreme poverty; and indigenous and disabled children.

Now it is up to all of us - including governments, law enforcement, international organisations, and all levels of civil society - to see to it that the elimination of child trafficking of every kind is accorded the same urgent priority.

Thank you.