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To the 53RD Session of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Imagen del UNICEF

Geneva - 30 September 2002

Mr. Chairman, Mr. High Commissioner, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues, Friends:

On behalf of the United Nations Children's Fund, I thank you for the opportunity to address this annual session of UNHCR's Executive Committee. It is a timely occasion, for in many ways, this year marks an important phase in the evolution of the UNICEF-UNHCR relationship. Mr. Chairman, our two agencies have been confronted with any number of challenges, primarily in the area of protection - and together we have turned them into opportunities to strengthen our collaboration.

This past May, the General Assembly Special Session on Children ended with a consensus agreement by governments to reaffirm the commitments they made in 1990, at the World Summit for Children - and to put forward a 21st Century agenda that calls for major improvements in child survival, health, education and protection by the year 2015. The new agenda, titled A World Fit for Children, includes steps to strengthen the protection of children affected by armed conflict, including co-ordination of humanitarian assistance to countries hosting refugees; strengthened international co-operation to help ensure the safe, swift and voluntary return home of all refugees and displaced persons; a permanent halt to the recruitment and use of child soldiers; concrete steps to combat all forms of terrorism; and an end to impunity, beginning with the prosecution of those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, with special attention paid to the abuse of children.

Mr. Chairman, never had the General Assembly devoted a Special Session solely to the plight of the world's children - much less invited so many children and young people to participate. Many of them, as fully accredited delegates, called on world leaders to provide greater protection for refugee and internally displaced children.

We are now revising the Memorandum of Understanding between UNICEF and UNHCR. This MOU has already inspired numerous joint undertakings to protect the rights of unaccompanied children; to provide education and psycho-social services for displaced children; and to halt the forced recruitment of children as soldiers. Many of the recommendations from UNHCR's recent and very important evaluation of its activities for refugee children are helping us to identify more specific areas where we can pool our efforts to protect displaced children. One of the major areas where we have seen our mandates converge is in the area of unaccompanied and separated children. After a great deal of work by both our organisations and by NGO partners, the Guidelines on Unaccompanied and Separated Children are close to being finalised. This is an area where we urgently need to establish consistency and standards - and I am confident that these new Guidelines will move us forward in this area.

Let me turn now to some of the challenges we have faced this year.

Mr. Chairman, for all our best efforts, we too often fail refugee and displaced children. This is a blunt message, but accurate. There are many areas in which I could document our collective shortcomings, from the continuing impunity enjoyed by those who force children and their families from their homes, to the use of children as soldiers and the repeated denial of humanitarian access to children in need. In refugee and IDP camps all over the world, girls and boys are spending their most developmentally crucial years in conditions of almost unimaginable misery and squalor. To spend even a day in a refugee camp is too long for a child; yet, we know that children live in these camps for year - and, in some cases, for generations.

Mr. Chairman, we are talking about a state of affairs that involves violations of so many child rights that I lack the time to list them all. It is clear that traditional sectoral and institutional responses - political, diplomatic, humanitarian, developmental, human rights-based - are no longer sufficient. Instead, we must become stronger advocates, more dynamic planners, and more participatory implementers - shaping sustainable and rights-based interventions through the efforts of governments, the UN, non-governmental organisations, donors, communities - and children and young people themselves.

Obviously, we cannot move forward without the support of donors. And here I want to make two points. First, we need longer-term funding cycles for humanitarian programmes. We cannot plan responses to protracted crises on six- and twelve-month funding cycles. Second, we must find a way to maintain a focussed presence in and around the long-term crises - especially those that have slipped out of the headlines and can no longer inspire political pressure to act.

We have seen progress this year in easing the plight of children in some seemingly intractable situations. From Sri Lanka to Angola to Afghanistan, and perhaps even Sudan, there are signs that peace may be taking hold. Displaced children and their families are returning to their homes and starting to rebuild their lives. We must provide the same hopeful future to the millions of other children still trapped in refugee and IDP camps. And we will continue to promote the United Nations as the indispensable forum for the peaceful settlement of disputes, based on collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to international peace and security.

Mr. Chairman, as recently as a decade ago, most humanitarian assistance to war-affected children and their families focused principally on food aid, health and nutrition interventions, safe water and adequate sanitation, and shelter. Now, psychosocial care and family tracing and reunification have become pillars of humanitarian action. And the centrepiece of our efforts to assist children is quality basic education, one of the demonstrably best investments that can be made in a nation's future and in peace. Even in the midst of chaos, education establishes a degree of stability and normalcy for the child. And it provides an critical opportunity for life-saving messages for children on such life-or-death questions as landmine awareness and HIV/AIDS prevention. and education. Indeed, education for human rights and for peace and tolerance is a key to any strategy for preventing conflict - and in this, access by marginalised groups to education must be a top priority.

A second area in which we must do far better as a humanitarian community is in the area of protection, including protection from sexual abuse and exploitation. The allegations by refugee girls and women against aid workers and peacekeepers presented in the UNHCR/Save the Children consultants' report earlier this year forced us to look at this issue with greater urgency and to reflect on the shame it brought to us all. The inter-agency response to this issue has been swift. The IASC Working Group established a Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises, which has developed a Plan of Action to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises. I'm sure you are all aware of the Six Core Principles for a Code of Conduct developed by the Task Force. All of the heads of IASC agencies endorsed these principles in July, a sign of the solid commitment on the part of the humanitarian community to end sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers.

Now we must move on an urgent basis to implement these principles through the Plan of Action. In tandem with the inter-agency response, UNICEF has strengthened its own work in this area. In Sierra Leone, we have established community-based monitoring and reporting mechanisms. In southern Africa we have trained staff in all six drought-affected countries on the core principles of a code of conduct and prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation. A key part of all our efforts in this area is accountability: personal and institutional. UNICEF is currently developing training and other sensitisation materials for all staff - from drivers to project assistants to Country Representatives. It is part of an effort to ensure that our accountability is grounded in the highest possible standards of professionalism - and that anything less will not be tolerated.

From a child rights perspective, one of the major strategies for promoting accountability to beneficiaries is the meaningful participation of young people in humanitarian assistance programmes. Participation entails information, knowledge, engagement, and ownership. In our actions, we must strive to provide adequate information to all beneficiaries about their rights and entitlements so that they have the knowledge they need to hold us accountable.

Mr. Chairman, last May, when the UN Secretary-General opened the Special Session for Children, he moved quickly to the heart of the matter. The question before the General Assembly, he told delegates, is nothing less than the future of humanity, for there is no issue more unifying, more urgent, or more universal than the welfare of our children.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Executive Committee: UNICEF's long and fruitful collaboration with UNHCR has become a model for humanitarian collaboration among agencies in the UN System. It remains a beacon of hope for the uprooted, the poor and the downtrodden - the vast majority of them women and children - and a bulwark of all our efforts on the ground.

Thank you.