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Bartels World Affairs Fellowship Lecture: 'Challenges for Children in Today's World'

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Ithaca - 4 March 2002

President and Mrs. Rawling, Mr. and Mrs. Bartels, Dr. Lelyveld, Distinguished Faculty Members, Students of Cornell, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure - and a greater honor - to be with you here in Ithaca.

I travel extensively - but seldom do I get to sojourn in so pastoral a setting, let alone one in the US.

Two days in the rarified air of Cornell is glorious enough - high above Cayuga's proverbial waters, serenaded by the Cornell Chimes, in the comfort of the Einaudi Center for International Studies. But to spend those two days as a Bartels World Affairs Fellow, surrounded by young people full of idealism and curiosity, many of them intrigued by the idea of public service - now that's my idea of a road trip.

As President Rawling pointed out in his kind invitation to me, the Bartels Fellowship was founded to educate students about the importance of global issues in today's world - and to promote discussions about the rewards of public service.

In the nearly six months that have elapsed since terrorists attacked the United States, we have been reminded, in the endless litany of funerals and memorial services, that bad things can happen to good people on an unimaginably vast scale.

But we have also learned that good things can come out of horrific cataclysms - and in the aftermath of 9/11, one of them appears to be a renewed interest by ordinary Americans in the idea of public service.

President Bush's recent call for citizens to fight terrorism by taking up jobs in public service has drawn wide praise, some of it from members of earlier generations whose idealism blossomed in 1961, when John F. Kennedy announced the creation of the Peace Corps. Indeed, last month, Peace Corps officials said that requests for applications had jumped 39 per cent since Mr. Bush's State of the Union address.

As a former Peace Corps volunteer who returned to serve as Director, I can tell you that the Peace Corps still embodies an ideal that shines brightly among people whose imagination is fired by the challenge of public service.

It is the challenge that President Kennedy sounded with his warning that "if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

Another good thing to come out of 9/11 - and one that I have no doubt involves millions of young people - is a new eagerness among Americans to try to understand the world beyond their borders, not only in political terms, but in cultural and religious ones as well.

Historians say the same growing thirst for information about global issues previously asserted itself after both World Wars; after the 1957 launch of Sputnik, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The question now is whether the current spike in interest will dissipate as quickly as its antecedents.

The extent to which 9/11's effects are already reflected in many college course offerings suggests that there may be more public willingness to address difficult issues than at other times in our history - a far cry from a generation ago, when many colleges resisted the idea of offering courses on the war in Vietnam.

Last month, a New York Times survey of college campuses around the country found a wide variety of new courses inspired by 9/11. They included predictable topics like Islam, Afghanistan and the history of terrorism. But there were also courses on such matters as the nature of American identity, the engineering of skyscrapers, and what Machiavelli has to teach us about power and terrorism.

Other educators, including secondary-school teachers, have recognized the events of 9/11 as an opening to do something considerably more ambitious - to help children and young people begin to think about war and political violence in an informed and open-minded way.

In a remarkable article just two days after the September attacks, Arthur Levine, the President of Teachers College, Columbia University, urged educators to steel themselves for many more days filled with pain and loss - but also to recognize that a wondrous opportunity might have arisen to teach children about the values of peace, tolerance, diversity and altruism.

"It has been said, on broadcast after broadcast, that America will never be the same again," the Teachers College president wrote. "[But] rather than waiting for the changes to happen to us," he wrote, "perhaps we have an opportunity to choose the changes we would like to occur."

It seems to me that in taking this pro-active approach, Arthur Levine was making an extremely important observation: that American children affected by the events of September 11th are no less victims of armed conflict than their counterparts in the developing world - and how they cope with their experience can spell the difference between war and peace in the years to come.

For Americans, the cumulative shock and anguish of September 11th and its aftermath have left their mark on all of us, but their effects have fallen most heavily on children, especially those who witnessed or experienced things that no child should ever see - and those struggling to understand the loss of parents or others dear to them.

The number of children who were directly affected is still anybody's guess; but we know, for example, that the deaths of 650 employees at the investment firm of Cantor Fitzgerald deprived some 1,300 children of at least one parent.

The psychic damage is harder to quantify.

In a story on how children who lost parents are coping, The Daily News mentioned a 9-year-old girl who dreams she is able to travel back in time to warn her firefighter father to stay away from the World Trade Center.

It talked about a 10-year-old boy who releases a balloon with a note attached to his dad asking how he's doing in heaven. And we learned of a 14-year-old boy who endlessly scans the street for green Saturn sedans, hoping that sooner or later, he'll spot his father behind the wheel.

Other children and young people - part of the young multitude that Newsweek magazine has dubbed "Generation 9/11" - told pollsters that the attacks had altered their worldview almost overnight.

Young people reported that life seemed suddenly more precious and fleeting. Massive military retaliation suddenly seemed preferable to non-violence. Racial profiling and the suspension of civil liberties suddenly seemed prudent and reasonable.

Even with the best care and rehabilitation, children affected by armed conflict tend to heal slowly. But it is the children of today who hold the key to war and peace tomorrow.

The importance of shaping an educational initiative that helps children understand what happened on 9/11 is in keeping with UNICEF's conviction, borne out by evidence from places as disparate as Croatia, Lebanon, Belfast, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and El Salvador, that the values of peace and tolerance can be taught - and that schools are the ideal venue. But there is more.

In Tanzania's refugee camps, where children from Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo attend "schools under trees," we have found reaffirmation that education helps re-establish stability in the midst of chaos - not only for children but also for families.

In every region of the world, we have learned that providing quality education, especially for girls, can overcome the effects of generations of poverty and social inequity, leading to reductions in infant and under-five mortality, helping to mobilize communities - and providing countries with their best chance for social and economic progress.

Indeed, the recognition of education - formal and non-formal, institutional and family-based - as a powerful force for preventing or resolving conflict is reflected in the international consensus that gave us history's most embraced human rights treaty, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 1990, Governments at the World Summit for Children explicitly committed themselves to education that promotes the values of peace, understanding and dialogue. UNICEF has helped fulfil that commitment in various ways, in the field and through the US Fund for UNICEF.

For example, in Burundi between 1994 and 1998, UNICEF and its partners helped train more than 5,000 teachers in peace education - and more than 7,000 others took part in education for peace workshops. In Sudan, a Life Skills Program for adolescents addresses peace, conflict resolution and human rights issues. And in Rwanda, educators have been driving home their points about conflict-resolution using the school sports and games curriculum.

In the United States, the US Fund for UNICEF - part of UNICEF's worldwide network of National Committees - kicked off a program called Kids Helping Kids to deliver cards, letters and drawings to comfort and console children affected by the attacks. It drew on the efforts of staff members, teachers, volunteers and children from across the country who were already mobilizing for the US Fund's annual Trick or Treat for UNICEF drive.

Using a variety of mediums, from radio and TV to the Internet, UNICEF also sponsors open-ended international dialogue on Voices of Youth, where everything from child labor and polio to 9/11 have been up for discussion.

I think these examples only hint at what education can achieve as we work to build a world fit for children. For education is the right of all children - and the obligation of all governments. It is the key to the new global economy - it is poverty's worst enemy - and it is a powerful force for peace.

That is why it is so important to get schools up and running again in long-suffering countries like Afghanistan. As you probably know, the interim Afghan government has secured an international aid package that includes an ambitious plan, supported by UNICEF and our partners, to ensure that a million and a half children - girls as well as boys - are back in school.

There can be no more accurate barometer of the effectiveness of the new government than the full restoration of education - and no more priceless outcome for Afghanistan and its children - especially the many girls who were so cruelly denied their right to education. As Graça Machel, the great champion of child rights, once said, "I have seen a generation of children armed with education lift up a nation."

Ladies and Gentlemen, the ideal of a just and peaceful world, sustained by collective international action, remains a beacon of hope, 57 years after it was first proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations.

It is a vision rooted in compassion and a profound sense of responsibility to our fellow human beings - and it begins with children and the realization of their rights.

That is the organizing principle behind the Global Movement for Children - a growing worldwide campaign to build a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of every child on earth.

It is also the premise behind General Assembly's upcoming Special Session on Children - the biggest global conference on children and their rights since the World Summit for Children in 1990. The Special Session was to have opened in New York on September 19th with some 80 heads of State and Government in attendance. It is now scheduled to open on May 8 - and we hope to draw an even bigger throng of world leaders.

In a global economy worth over $30 trillion, real improvement in the lives of children, their families and their communities is well within our resources - but making it happen will require the exercise of real leadership, from the pinnacles of government to civil society at every level - from non-governmental organizations and business and private enterprise, to religious groups and academia, community and grassroots organizations, the media, families - and children themselves.

I fervently believe that each of us has the ability to exercise that power - and that together, we can give every child a better future, secure in the knowledge that in serving the best interests of children, we serve the cause of all humanity.

Thank you.