special session on children of the General Assembly



Ms. Krystyna Tokarska-Biernacik
Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy
Head of the Polish Delegation

 8-10 May 2002


Mr. President,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In this plenary debate, I am honored to represent the Government of Poland. Let me first of all stress that we deem it very appropriate for the General Assembly of the United Nations, the best emanation of the international community there is to affirm and celebrate human rights of the most vulnerable in this very city, where on September 11 last year human rights were so flagrantly violated by terrorist fanatics.

The extraordinarily high profile given to this Special Session very rightly reflects the gravity of the problem before us: To make the world fit for children. Today, the world is qualitatively different than it was 12 years ago at the time of the first World Summit for Children. Economic globalization and the unprecedented progress of information and computer technologies have created unparalleled opportunities for future economic growth. If the nations of the world manage to use those opportunities properly, an economic foundation may be laid for the fuller realization of economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights of children. Governments could help those opportunities materialize by respecting the political and civil rights of their citizens, thus allowing for the full expression of their creative potential, by promoting political democracy, the rule of law and a market economy.

Yet globalization and ICT revolution may also pose challenges. By revolutionizing the patterns of work and interpersonal communication, they, as it were, question the traditional social structures, such as the family, community, and country, and the traditional values which hitherto permeated them. Global competition may bring about the benefits of more value for the money, but also the scourge of child labor, which is often perceived to be more price competitive. The pluralistic market of values now present in our homes and communities by way of ICT technologies, may lead to greater self-consciousness and appreciation of diversity, but may also lead to moral relativism. Instantaneous insight into other peoples' ways of life may lead to greater self-motivation, but may also breed frustration. The young are especially vulnerable to making wrong choices.

Because children are vulnerable, they are sometimes manipulated as well as exploited for political purposes by adults. That exploitation is especially abhorrent when children are used in armed conflicts.

It is, therefore, for the polity to support strong communities and families where children are nurtured and conditioned to make the right choices in their particular circumstances and where their rights are respected. This approach is clearly reflected in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Concern for the health of the family is also amply visible in the Plan of Action contained in this Special Session's final document, A World Fit for Children.

At the international level we are trying to build a world more fit for children by creating basic standards of their protection, by exchanging knowledge on best practices and by setting goals for our national policies. I am proud to mention that Poland has a strong record on this front.

In 1978 Poland initiated in the UN Commission on Human Rights work on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the General Assembly adopted in 1989. Although the history of international pronouncements on the rights of the child goes back to the 1924 League of Nations Declaration, yet it took until 1989 for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to come to fruition. It has been ratified by a record 192 countries. Poland was among the first countries to ratify the Convention. In 2001 Poland signed its Optional Protocols on the involvement of children in armed conflict and on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography. I should mention, that two persons who have greatly contributed to the birth of that Convention, Professor Adam Lopatka and Professor Maria Lopatkowa are in this hall with us today as members of the Polish delegation. I wish to salute them for their efforts.

Polish initiative also led in the year 2000 to the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The Convention has Optional Protocols regarding the trafficking in women and children and in migrant workers.

Earlier, Poland had worked very hard together with other countries on the adoption in 1998 by the International Labor Conference of the Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up. Those fundamental principles and rights include the effective abolition of child labor. Poland has ratified ILO Convention 138 concerning minimum age for admission to employment and is now finalizing the ratification of ILO Convention 182 concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.

We in Poland take special pride in our contribution to the adoption and/or promotion of those international instruments which are referred to in the final document of this Session as international standards of major importance providing a framework for all actions concerning children and adolescents.

Poland is also a party to the relevant regional international instruments adopted under the aegis of the Council of Europe. In particular, we have ratified, inter alia, Articles 7, 16 and 17 of the European Social Charter, dealing respectively with the right of children and young persons to protection in connection with work, the right of the family to social, legal and economic protection, and the right of mothers and children to social and economic protection. Poland has already completed the first reporting cycle on its compliance with the ratified articles of the European Social Charter.

What are Poland's accomplishments and shortcomings 12 years since the World Summit on Children passed the World Declaration on the Survival, protection and development of Children and Plan of Action for Implementing the Declaration?

Starting with the Constitution, our laws comply with the international standards on the protection of children, mothers and families. Since 2000, Poland also has a special Ombudsman for Children (apart from the regular Ombudsmen). He is charged with the watchdog function, which is to intervene on behalf of children whose rights or interests have been violated and if regular rectification procedures proved inadequate. Our Ombudsman for Children attends this Special Session.

As across the world, our record is mixed. In 2001 the Polish Government presented the Secretary-General with our National Progress Report. On the positive side of the ledger, the Report lists the reduction of infant mortality by over 50 percent (to 8.2 per 1000 live births in 2000) and of under-five mortality by 40 percent (to 38 per 100,000 in 1999). Maternal mortality in Poland fell by over 65 percent to 5.2 per 100,0001ive births in 1999). Prevalence of deaths of infants and under-five children due to acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, and measles is in Poland either very sporadic or nonexistent. There have been no occurrences of polio and neonatal tetanus. Over 90 percent of infants are covered in Poland by immunization against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, polio, tuberculosis, and of women of childbearing age-against tetanus. Iodine deficiency disorders have been eliminated. Incidence of low birthweight stood at about 6 percent toward the end of the last century. There is adequate access to safe drinking water. Access to primary education is universal. Literacy rates near 100 percent, although functional illiteracy does exist. Poland has a developed system of maternity protections and benefits aimed at supporting families in the rearing of children. Various actions were taken in regard to fertility and family planning. For instance, the Polish Government together with the United Nations Population Fund implemented in 1995-1999 in Poland a program "Promotion of health of mothers and children with special emphasis on family planning." Knowledge on human sexuality is also part of school curriculum in Poland. The present Government desires to ensure that such knowledge is complete and delivered by highly qualified teachers. All in all, Poland has generally achieved the goals set at the World Summit for Children.

On the negative side of the ledger are the disparities between developed cities and relatively underdeveloped rural areas of Poland, inhabited by about 30 percent of our citizens. The social consequences of those disparities have been lately exacerbated by slower economic growth, a large wave of baby-boomers entering the labor market and the resultant growth of unemployment, which now stands at over 18 percent. All that must have had a negative impact on families and children.

Rural areas and small towns suffer from particularly high unemployment and higher than average rates of poverty. Children living there have lesser access to quality education and quality healthcare. Although there is no hunger in Poland, some children (as well as adults) living in such underprivileged areas may experience inadequate nutrition.

Even the best social policy alone is not going to overcome those disparities in the short run. By pursuing sound macroeconomic policies the Government creates conditions for faster economic growth in the future. Education reform instituted in 1999, although requiring certain corrections, aims at preparing students for the functioning in the current demanding and flexible labor market. New curricula turn away from rigid training in narrow specializations toward a broader approach, equipping students with the knowledge of business. The upcoming membership of Poland in the European Union will create unprecedented opportunities for Poland for swifter economic growth and social development. We, therefore, look into the future with confidence. Ten years from now we should have made greater advancements toward the realization and protection of the rights of children and in meeting their needs in teens of education, health, support for families, and other goals specified in the final document of this Special Session.

Yet, in order to achieve those objectives more efficiently we need support of local communities their churches and non-governmental organizations. The last decade witnessed an explosion of such organizations in Poland. Over 20 of them are affiliated at this Session. At all levels of government, national and local, they are regarded as valuable partners. To foster volunteerism among our citizens, the current Government will introduce legislation supporting non-profit organizations working for public good.

Voluntary organizations strengthen the fabric of the community. For the youth themselves they provide a positive alternative to various, sometimes criminal, juvenile subcultures. We perceive them as important allies in combating juvenile delinquency. Incidentally, we believe that criminal behavior of juveniles deserves greater attention and more thorough reaction of international bodies such as this Special Session.

Yet, despite the mixed record of accomplishments, the Secretary-General is right in writing in his end-decade review We the Children, "the world has seen ... more progress for children in the decade since the World Summit for Children than in any other period" (para. 36). With what has been already accomplished, with the experience of political action for children gathered, with the strategies of political action developed, the Secretary-General suggests that momentum has been created for a "decisive shift in national investments to favor the wellbeing of children." This Special Session on children should be the juncture at which this important step is taken (para. 47). We should all wish ourselves such an outcome.

I thank you very much for your attention.