H.E. Mr. Herbert HAUPT,
Federal Minister for Social Security and Generations
on the occasion of the Special Session of the General Assembly on Children
9 May 2002
A decade has passed since delegates of all states represented in the United Nations gathered for the first World Summit for Children. At that summit conference, for the first time the concerns of the children of this world were the focus of international attention.
Since then, many significant developments have taken place, owing to a large extent to the remarkable - and perhaps somewhat unexpected - success of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A great deal has changed in the international community, including in Austria, and children have become an "independent" human-rights issue, both in terms of their place within the family and outside. Every child has the comprehensive right to protection as well as care from the family, from caregivers and from social institutions.
There is no doubt that it is thanks to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that children today are acknowledged to have the same personal dignity as adults and that they have specific rights.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child declares in its preamble that "the family is the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children".
In this connection, it must certainly be of concern to us that many countries have been unable to break the intrinsic link between "children, family and poverty". It is a well-known fact that economic poverty often provides fertile soil for the manifestation of "social poverty".
To break this vicious cycle, every society needs to ensure that it provides an adequate legal and social framework for children and their families. For a family to fulfill its comprehensive obligations towards children in the best possible way, society at large must also contribute its share.
Austria has accorded the highest priority to the fight against poverty of families and children. The Austrian system of family transfer payments, in conjunction with special tax legislation, ensures that a considerable share of the average cost of raising a child today is borne by the State. Contributions include family allowances, contributions in kind - such as free school textbooks and public transportation - and tax incentives.
In order to make it as easy as possible for both parents to care for their infant in a spirit of partnership, Austria has recently passed the "Home Childcare Allowance Act". Under this law, parental childcare is explicitly recognized as a service rendered to society and is remunerated in keeping with family policies. Today, every parent - regardless of whether he or she was gainfully employed before the birth - is entitled to childcare allowance. In order to further combat the impoverishment of families with small children, 'socially disadvantaged' parents and single parents receive a monthly benefit in addition to this transfer payment.
An important measure of relief and support for parents, who already have or are expecting a baby with disabilities, are supplementary care benefits, which are granted as of the date of birth. The present government has introduced these benefits, as an incentive for parents to opt for the unborn disabled child and to help bear the burden.
Occasionally, mothers in despair abandon their babies after giving birth. Such abandoned babies are in danger of dying before being found. Therefore, an increasing number of hospitals in Austria now provide for a facility where babies can be given in care. Furthermore, any mother may chose to give birth without disclosing her identity. The present government has also considerably facilitated adoption of newly born or abandoned babies and small children.
In view of the high divorce rate in many countries, and Austria is no exception, the support of children affected by divorce is a major challenge facing state and society today, as divorce causes many children to lose a parent.
In 2001, Austria has reformed the legislative framework regulating the parent-child relationship, establishing custodial rights for both parents after a divorce or separation. This measure aims at emphasizing even more strongly that both parents bear responsibility for their children.
Another new measure introduced in Austria to help divorcing parents reach a consensual solution is mediation. In this phase - critical for them but even more so for their children - parents are encouraged to avail themselves of the help of an impartial third party in the form of a team of legally and psychologically trained mediators. The mediators support parents in their efforts to shape their new family relationship in the best interests of the children. In order to help children affected by divorce to cope with the separation and the problems related thereto, state-supported "child protection organizations" offer a range of services to help parents and children.
Mr. President, in our modern societies, one would like to believe that violence against children as an "educational measure" is very much a thing of the past. However, non-violent education has been enshrined in laws in only a few countries. Austria introduced a ban on corporal punishment, which prohibits any physical or emotional abuse of children to enforce educational objectives.
Furthermore, education of parents aims to foster "non-violent" parenting skills and to impart methods and models of non-violent education. Educational counseling, social services and child protection centers are additional instruments for helping families. In cases of domestic violence or threats of violence, the police are now entitled to remove the violent person from the family residence and to stop them returning for a certain period of time.
We all must assume our responsibility to ensure that technological progress in the information sector is beneficial to our children. Each and every individual within our society should have the freedom of using modern technologies in a safe way, the younger the person the more so. That is why Austria focuses on constant attention to newly emerging phenomena of commercial sexual exploitation of children through electronic devices. Such phenomena require careful monitoring and need to be adequately reflected in the penal legislation.
The overarching conclusions of the Vienna International Conference "Combating Child Pornography on the Internet", organized by Austria within the framework of the EU-US transatlantic dialogue, remain valid.
In this context, I am pleased to announce that just one week ago, on 30 April, the Austrian government has taken the formal decision to initiate the ratification process of the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography with the Austrian Parliament.
Let me draw your attention to the issue of children in armed conflict. It is a fact that the steady increase in civilian casualties in conflict situations has an alarming impact on children. Austria has ratified the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict on 1 February this year.
Mr. President, it is my conviction that the international community must undertake stronger efforts to address the complex needs of war-affected children. In this regard I would like to pay special tribute to the United Nations and in particular to UNICEF and to the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Mr. Olara Otunnu, for the work being pursued to ensure greater protection of children affected by armed conflict.
Austria, during her chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the year 2000, initiated policies and measures to benefit children in conflict situations and in the fight against child trafficking. The issue of protection of children in armed conflicts will be one of the top priorities of the Human Security Network during the Austrian chairmanship in the year 2003.
We should take the "Children's Forum Message" serious that the children are the future but they also are the present, and we should not put them off with a promise that 'someday' their rights will be realized, and their specific needs and interests met. This includes ensuring that children can take part in decision-making processes.
In this connection, I would like to point out that it was on account of an Austrian initiative that the Council of EU Ministers of Youth adopted the EU Resolution on Youth Participation. This Resolution enhanced the scope of participation of young people in socio-political decision-making, at both EU and at Member State level.
With the establishment in Austria of a Federal Youth Union, young people have now been given a formal and legally recognized forum in which to voice their interests in a representative, credible and effective manner. This Union acts as a consulting body for the Federal Minister of Social Security and Generations and the Austrian Federal Government. It enjoys a comprehensive right to make proposals in matters relevant to young people and is involved in the scrutiny of bills relating to children and young people.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. President,
The experiences we make and the lessons we learn during childhood shape our entire lives. We who are gathered here today - representatives of our countries and of the people living there - carry the responsibility for the children and young people, who will shape the future of our nations.