Press Releases

    Background Release

    2 May 2002

    General Assembly Special Session on Children to Explore Challenges to Youth Development, Child Rights, Beginning 8 May

    NEW YORK, 1 May (UN Headquarters) -- The United Nations is set to renew its commitment to the world's children and adolescents as the General Assembly dedicates a landmark three-day special session to explore long-standing obstacles to young people's well-being and development, as well as new challenges to the promotion and protection of their rights.

    Scheduled to take place in New York from 8 to 10 May, the special session will bring together over 70 heads of State and government, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), children's advocates and children themselves.

    The special session will also feature an unprecedented number of youths serving as representatives of their official delegations. So far, 179 of the 300 young participants have registered as members of government delegations from 101 countries. The remaining children are part of accredited NGO delegations. Many more young people are expected to sign up, forming an intriguing and youthful counterpoint to the heads of State and government that will attend the session, which originally had been scheduled for September 2001.

    "It may seem like common sense to invite young people to a conference completely dedicated to their well-being. But this is a radical change for such high-level meetings", said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Children will literally be rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers. They will have a chance to voice their concerns and influence the debate."

    Reporting on preparations for the session to the Assembly's Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) last October, Andre Roberfroid, UNICEF's Deputy Director, said the tragedy that had delayed the largest-ever global meeting on children only emphasized the urgency of building a new agenda on their behalf -- a more humane world, a world fit for children. That catchphrase, the session's unofficial rallying cry, has been adopted by delegations as the title of the draft outcome document.

    A key step towards ensuring a new world youth agenda will be a review of progress made since the 1990 World Summit for Children, where, with the near-universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, governments committed to specific and time-bound goals on child survival, protection and development. Key issues from 1990 remain central to the new global goals, including further reducing infant and maternal mortality, expanding access to clean water and sanitation, and establishing universal primary education. World leaders will be asked to identify strategic solutions to the problems facing children and to commit the critical human and economic resources that will be needed.

    At the same time, the active participation of children, along with the expected participation of more than 1,000 representatives from child-focused NGOs from around the world providing a grass-roots view of children's needs, promises to broaden the gathering far beyond the traditional core of official government representatives. Of the 3,765 NGOs accredited for the conference, 1,673 do not have a previous official United Nations affiliation. Bringing the voices of the world's youth and bringing community groups -- who often work the closest with children -- into the decision-making process marks a historic breakthrough for United Nations conferences.

    Most of the child delegates will first participate in the 5-7 May Children's Forum, where they will prepare positions on issues to be deliberated by governments in the plenary of the special session. The Forum will select two children to present its outcome to the plenary. There will also be numerous opportunities for the young people to interact with world leaders during the conference, including several scheduled closed-door sessions.

    The spirit of intergenerational solidarity that will characterize the work of the session is expected to yield a set of goals and plan of action devoted to ensuring the essential outcomes -- the best possible start in life for all children, a good-quality basic education for all children, and the opportunities for all children, especially adolescents, for meaningful participation in their communities.

    Report of Secretary-General

    Hundreds of NGOs have already contributed to the special session's two main documents. The first, an updated version of the Secretary-General's report, "We the Children: End Decade Review of the Follow-up to the World Summit for Children", was released last week. That report, the most comprehensive study ever released on the condition of children, provides a detailed look at the progress on their behalf since the 1990 World Summit. The results are decidedly mixed, with substantial progress in some areas matched with stagnation and even outright deterioration in other areas.

    The child mortality rate and other statistics contained in the report lend gravity to the basic United Nations assertion that serious investment in the rights and development of children is essential to overcoming poverty. The overall results reflect the world's failure to invest adequately in young people: over 10.5 million still die each year, often from readily preventable causes; an estimated 150 million are malnourished; and over 120 million never go to school, the majority of them girls.

    Backed with data from nearly 150 countries, the report shows that the disparities and pervasive poverty of today are directly related to under-investment in young people, especially their health, education and protection. It says that if governments are truly serious about reducing poverty, then they must make children their first priority.

    Draft Outcome Document

    With that in mind, Member States at the special session are prepared to adopt a wide-ranging series of goals -- outlined in "A World Fit for Children", the session's other main document, which addresses the pressing issues of child mortality, AIDS, exploitation and poverty. The 21-proposed goals promise to have far-reaching impact and will make a vital contribution to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals adopted by world leaders two years ago.

    Building on promises made at international conferences during the 1990s, the 2002 goals aim to pull hundreds of millions out of poverty within a generation. Gathering the goals into a single document enables governments to focus on children as the cornerstone of a stable, thriving society.

    But new targets have been added in the areas of HIV/AIDS and child protection, reflecting the changing nature of the challenges facing the world's children. Five goals deal with the protection of children from abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence. Because of their often hidden and undocumented nature, these issues do not lend themselves to delineated targets. Rather, each government has agreed to investigate these abuses, to set standards for monitoring them, and to protect children from them with appropriate legislation.

    Three of the goals address HIV/AIDS, whose devastating impact was largely unforeseen in 1990. Today, children are both the pandemic's primary victims and the key to breaking its transmission.

    A commitment by the international community on protection issues -- including sexual exploitation, the impact of armed conflict, child labour, and all forms of abuse -- is also expected to be part of the outcome of the session. This commitment will send a powerful message that effective national policies and programmes need to be developed to address such issues.

    "Healthy and educated children do not merely result from economic development", Ms. Bellamy, has said. "They are a critical force driving it. If we are to invest in development, that means, first and foremost, we must invest in children. A single set of global goals on children gets the world moving in that direction."

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