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Carol Bellamy addresses the 2nd Intergovernmental Conference on Making Europe and Central Asia Part of a World Fit for Children

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy remarks:

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen: 

It is fitting that we are meeting here in Sarajevo – a city steeped in more than 800 years of history whose young people remember only too well what happens when adults forget their obligations to children.

Our journey began in Berlin in 2001, at the First Intergovernmental Conference on Children in Europe and Central Asia – and continued in 2002 at the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Children, where governments vowed to help build A World Fit for Children – a world where there the highest aspiration of citizenship is to ensure the right of every child to grow to adulthood in peace, health and dignity.

All of us here today – representatives of governments, multilateral agencies and the many faces of civil society, the media and, of course, children and young people themselves – want that world for the children of Europe and Central Asia. Is it within reach?

The joyous celebrations marking the expansion of the European Union suggest that it is, because this is a region of shared optimism and ambition.

But the real answer is: It depends on whether children and their families are rich or poor. It depends on whether they come from  an ethnic minority or a family of migrants or refugees. It depends on whether they live in a neglected rural backwater, an urban slum or a middle-class suburb. From the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Pacific coast of the Russian Federation, we see that the same groups of children are excluded from social progress time and time again – the ethnic minorities, the migrants, in some areas it is the girls – and in every area, it is the poorest and most vulnerable. 

This is a region of disparities between countries. The 10 nations that joined the EU two weeks ago are joining the ranks of the world’s most advanced industrialised democracies, while the poorest countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus struggle with low public expenditure, high public debt and large numbers of people living in absolute poverty.

It is also a region of disparities within countries. In every country, rich or poor, there are children living in such abject poverty that their health and growth are at risk. In even the richest countries, relative poverty excludes children from the lifestyle enjoyed by those around them – the lifestyle fondly imagined to be the norm. This is where we find the children on the sidelines of society – able to look, able to aspire but, because of their poverty, unable to participate. The impact of such poverty lasts a lifetime, undermining education, fuelling crime, drug abuse, human trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDS – and perpetuating poverty and disadvantage into succeeding generations.

Every individual should have the opportunity to choose a life of value, to choose to be healthy, well nourished, well housed, well educated, and to participate in community and public life. But many in this region are denied that choice by the poverty and discrimination that undermines their childhood and excludes them from mainstream society. If it is to have any impact, this Conference must address social exclusion – and that requires thinking in terms of human rights: the rights that every government is obliged to defend and fulfil. A paramount goal must be to create a protective environment around all children – with every single child protected against poverty, exploitation and violence.

As part of your work here, you will discuss investment in children – the investment with the greatest returns: educated, healthy, productive and empowered citizens. But regardless of the returns, this is a question of rights. Children have the right to be educated, to be healthy and to be protected from poverty – and States are obliged to safeguard these rights, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

You will look at children crossing borders. Some are migrants, asylum seekers or refugees. Some are adopted. Some are trafficked. Whatever their circumstances, States are obliged to protect all children within their jurisdiction, no matter where they are from, how they came to be there, or whether they are there legally or not. The rights of the child, rather than issues of national sovereignty or political expediency, take precedence.

You will discuss children and violence. The violent abuse of children is nothing new – they face violence in the home, at school, in the streets. But we are seeing more and more children exploited through prostitution, child pornography and trafficking. 

This city knows the horrors of violence inflicted on children in wartime. But even in times of peace and prosperity, children are in danger. In most countries, some forms of violence against children remain lawful and socially approved, particularly in the home.

States are obliged to protect children against violence wherever it occurs and it is vital that they do so. What happens to children determines society’s attitudes to violence. Protecting them from violence today is crucial to the prevention of violence throughout society in the future.

You will review education as a shield against social exclusion. As well as providing children with knowledge, schooling boosts their confidence and expands their horizons. And for many vulnerable children, school is a place of order and safety in an otherwise chaotic world. A good school is inclusive – a model for the rest of society. So it is alarming to see that education is moving beyond the reach of the poorest families in the region as costs soar. All children have the right to a good education, regardless of their circumstances. Again, States have an obligation to uphold that right. 

Finally, you will be discussing cities fit for children. Across this region, there are urban children living in crumbling housing, unable to walk in safety in their own neighbourhoods, let alone express their views or needs. We want to see Child Friendly Cities in every country – cities that not only guarantee essential social services for children, but also give them a voice in the decisions being made about their city.

This brings me to a critical issue for all discussions at this Conference: child participation. Children have the right to be involved in the decisions that affect them, yet most are systematically excluded from the decision-making that affects their lives. Don’t let that happen – and especially not at this Conference, which includes 27 children and young people from 14 countries across the region, all of them here to meet adult policy- makers. As we saw at the Special Session on Children, they have something important to say. They have been working together here in Sarajevo to prepare for this Conference and they have the greatest stake in our discussions. They deserve to be heard.

Distinguished Delegates, reduction of disparities has always been part of the European vision. In 1996, the European Commission declared that regional location and social position should not limit anybody’s chances in life. Reduction of disparities is the motivation behind the commitments of A World Fit for Children. It is the foundation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But as we have seen, disparity endures, and it must be overcome if we are to build a region fit for children or have any hope of reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals, rooted as they are in human rights and social justice.

Regrettably, the EU accession debate has centred on economic issues. The transition process in the East has been dominated by the push for economic progress, with public policies to advance social conditions and human rights often treated as optional extras to be addressed when economic conditions allow.

But economic growth alone will not address social exclusion. Economic growth alone will not end poverty, or ensure human rights, social justice or human development. The end result of economic growth without effective social policies is growth for its own sake – growth to benefit the few, rather than the many.

Distinguished Delegates, we seem to have lost sight of the original vision behind these processes. The goal of transition in the East was to raise the standard of living of its people and to develop societies that were more humane and democratic. And in the West, the Copenhagen Criteria governing EU entry require candidate countries to achieve “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.”

We need to reaffirm a vision that goes beyond economics. That vision lies in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the region. The Convention transcends cultural, religious, historical and economic differences to set minimum standards of care and protection for all children, without exception.

Under the Convention, Governments have accepted their obligations to ensure all rights for all children. That is no longer a matter for debate. We must move beyond talk of promises, of pledges, of commitments and even transition. The time has come for governments to deliver on their obligations. And with economic growth taking place across Europe and Central Asia, there is no excuse for delay.

And so I challenge this Conference to show that it means business. This region can well afford to safeguard the well-being of its children. It can well afford to end social exclusion. Distinguished Delegates, I see no reason why Europe and Central Asia should not strive to become the first region in the world to eliminate child poverty. It would be a momentous achievement. It would unite the countries of the region around a visionary goal. And by dint of their triumph, the people of Europe and Central Asia would show that a world fit for children is a world fit for all. 

Thank you.



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