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Opening Plenary Statement to Special Session of the General Assembly on Children


New York, 8 May 2002

Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:

Twelve years after the World Summit for Children, it is impossible not to feel the acceleration of history. We live in a world where the only constant is change - where what was beyond imagination yesterday has already happened today, whether it is the fall of the Berlin Wall or the deciphering of the human genome.

By the same token, who at UNICEF could have imagined, as they sat calculating milk rations for hungry children in postwar Europe, that 56 years later UNICEF would be engaged on a global scale in development, child rights, and humanitarian relief?

The World Summit for Children and the decade that followed was a time of even more dizzying change - and significant progress for children.

Soon after the Convention on the Rights of the Child had gone into force in record time, 71 world leaders agreed to a set of ambitious, time-bound goals for child survival and development, with a priority for children caught up in armed conflict and violence, neglect, cruelty and exploitation and all the countless other horrific consequences of poverty and discrimination.

James Grant, my wonderfully distinguished predecessor, marveled at the ripple effects of the Summit, noting that a number of international financial institutions seemed to be warming to the idea that development begins with people - and that the well-being of the child is not only a principled objective of people-centred development, but also a major means of achieving that development.

As we confer here today, a dozen years later, what would have astonished us at the World Summit has become the norm at the Special Session on Children.

Child rights, women's rights and people-centred development are now widely regarded as ideas whose time has come. This is the first time the General Assembly has addressed the issue of children in a Special Session. And never has a major UN meeting invited so many children and young people to participate as official delegates - over 250 at last count and it is going up, most of whom prepared for the work ahead by attending a three-day Children's Forum nearby.

As I told the young delegates at the Children's Forum closing yesterday afternoon, their participation is what makes the Special Session special. And UNICEF hopes that the leadership that they have already shown at the Children's Forum this week will inspire world leaders to join the drive for a more just and peaceful world.

Mr. President, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child helped usher in a decade that saw reductions in iodine deficiency disorders through salt iodisation; an immunisation drive that has now brought polio to the brink of eradication; allowed widespread distribution of Vitamin A supplements, and sparked progress in promoting the many benefits of breastfeeding.

These are all significant achievements, literally unimaginable half a century ago. And they would not have been possible without the vital partnerships that have developed between governments, donors, international institutions and broad aspects of civil society, including non-governmental organisations, community and grassroots groups - families and children themselves. They demonstrate what can be done when commitments are matched by resources and political will.

But for all the millions of young lives that have been saved, and for all the futures that have been enhanced, we have failed to reach most of the key survival and development goals that were set at the World Summit in such areas as basic education, under-5 mortality, maternal mortality, child malnutrition, and sanitation.

Indeed, as we crossed into the 21st Century, children under the age of 5 were dying at the rate of 11 million a year, most from totally preventable causes like diarrhea, measles, and acute respiratory infections. Some 50 million children were malnourished, often at a cost of developmental handicaps that last a lifetime; and 120 million children of primary-school age, about 60 percent of whom are girls, were not in class.

The proliferation of armed conflict continues and grows and takes a horrific toll on children - and setting the stage for wars that are passed from generation to generation. As the excellent Graça Machel has observed in her landmark UN Report on the impact of war on children, millions of children are slaughtered, raped, maimed, exploited as soldiers and exposed to unspeakable brutality.

There is also growing recognition that other forms of violence comprise of vast, under-recognised and under-reported barrier to child survival and development. Violence keeps children, especially girls, out of school, and is a major health problem.

Progress for children has also been greatly hampered, by the explosion of the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. It is so devastating that it is already reversing decades of hard-won gains for children as well as by the growing number of humanitarian crises that involves children - and of course by the long decline in Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Poverty, inequity, joblessness and social upheaval are all growing as rapidly as the human population, and the prospects for relief have been clouded by the spread of global economic distress. Moreover, the terrorist attacks last September 11th have stirred fresh insecurities, they have traumatized countless children - and they have inspired the shift, unfortunately, of vast budgetary resources into military spending that might otherwise have gone, at least in part, to basic social services.

Yet for all the uncertainties in the world, the future remains in our hands as never before. And that is why this Special Session is so important. It is an opportunity not only for the General Assembly to review progress since the World Summit, 12 years ago, but to re-energize the international commitment to realizing a global vision for children now and in the years to come.

As our Secretary-General has pointed out in a $30 trillion plus global economy, the knowledge, the resources, and the strategies exist to give children the best possible start in life of quality primary education and help in navigating the complex passages from adolescence to adulthood.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Excellencies, creating a world that is truly fit for children does not imply simply the absence of war. It means having the confidence that our children would not die of measles, or malaria. It means having access to clean water and proper sanitation. It means having primary schools near by that educate children, free of charge. It means changing the world with children, ensuring their right to participate, and that their views are heard and considered. It means building a world fit for children, where every child can grow to adult, as a person in health, in peace and dignity.

All this will require the exercise of leadership, from the pinnacles of government to civil society at every level - from non-governmental organisations and business and private enterprise, to religious groups and academia, community, media, grassroots organisations, families - and children themselves

The world we seek has remained a dream for more years than any of us can count. But we at UNICEF are convinced that working together we can make it come through. We can make it come through for each and every child on the earth.

As young Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in his journal, and I quote " Never measure the height of a mountain until you have reached the top, then you will see how low it is."

Thank you.



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