New York, 10 May 2002

Check against delivery


I am particularly pleased to be taking part in this Special Session on Children at the United Nations General Assembly. In the first place, because Portugal is proud of its committed stance on this problem and attributes great importance to promoting children's rights. Secondly, because this General Assembly marks an historic tuming point in our approach to this problem that will enable us to establish a real children's agenda for the 21st century. And finally because I personally believe that the subject of children is a core political priority that is decisive for each person's individual future as well as for the collective future of any society.

Before continuing I would like to greet the United Nations Secretary General who was responsible for including this Special Session in the framework of the important conferences organised by the United Nations and who is the driving force behind the work developed in favour of children's rights under the aegis of this Organisation.

I would also like to express my gratitude to all members of governments, representatives of civil society and young people from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, who helped prepare this Special Session. Their commitment raised the awareness of politicians the world over and played a vital role in establishing an international children's agenda and building a world fit for children to live in.

On behalf of Portugal I would also like to express our appreciation of and unconditional support for UNICEF, which has played a decisive part in defending children's rights.

This Special Session provides a unique opportunity to reaffirm our responsibility for the construction of a new world where the right to be a child and a young person is a universal reality without distinction or discrimination.

But it is also the right time to assert children's and young people's right to citizenship, based both on acknowledgement of their intrinsic individuality and vulnerability, and on their capacity to participate in and influence decisions, contributing decisively to the progress of our societies.

It is on behalf of the said citizenship that the development of policies for children and young people which are specifically centred on their problems becomes increasingly urgent and in my view constitutes one of the main priorities of our governments and of public authorities in general.

Twelve years have elapsed since the World Summit on Infancy where the World Declaration on Survival, Protection and Development of Children and its respective Plan of Action were adopted, and there has been significant progress in various sectors, particularly in health and education.

In Portugal, for example, infant mortality has dropped drastically and there have been significant improvements in the health and education systems, whilst access to preschool education grew about 20% over the last five years.

This improvement in the life of children and the protection of their rights over the last decade, clearly highlighted in the excellent report by the Secretary General entitled "We the Children", is undoubtedly a positive and encouraging sign of the way ahead.

It also irrefutably illustrates the decisive role played by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, in the practical and material improvement in the lives of children and young people.

In fact, the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a regulatory and ethical frame of reference that will inspire all actions on behalf of children. Until this Convention has been universally ratified all international actions on behalf of children will lack the appropriate foundations and their effectiveness will be seriously compromised. Now is the time to reaffirm its universal value and I appeal strongly for the Convention to be widely ratified.

If the Convention on the Rights of the Child is a turning point and a landmark in the history of children as persons in their own right, we must now define a precise strategy to elaborate a specific agenda, consolidating the progress achieved in the past and with determination facing the persisting difficulties, whilst identifying all the new challenges.

Many of these challenges require our urgent intervention. These include preventing early school leaving, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy, fighting poverty, violence, ill-treatment and sexual abuse of children.

In this area, too, globalisation has introduced new facts, namely the transverse nature of many of the problems affecting children and young people today: the recurrence in time and space of conditions where critical situations and difficulties are reproduced; the globalisation of violence to which children and young people are particularly vulnerable, and their use as tools.

It is therefore urgent to combine efforts and agree to a priority, demanding agenda for children, ensuring that it is rapidly and progressively accomplished. Children must form the core of an individual policy based on a global vision of their specific characteristics and needs and which is developed as an end in itself.

We have so far been content to develop partial policies as the solution for specific problems - health, for example, or education and drug addiction. Our general policies on social exclusion have also attempted to improve children's living conditions. Nevertheless, we still lack a global policy for children and young people, based on a project of society and on children's specificities and determined by the challenges posed by the modem world. It must be granted the political priority to which it is entitled, because a society that does not take care of its children is a society without a future.

Only a joint and demanding action displaying the solidarity of the intemational community will be able to fight the difficult obstacles facing the development of children in our globalised world that are compromising the social progress in our

I am thinking particularly of the proliferation of armed conflicts and the growing, unacceptable victimisation and instrumentalisation of children; on the devastating effects of Aids on young people and children, mainly the socially and economically deprived; or the growing marginalisation and social exclusion of more vulnerable groups, including migrants, women and children.

That is why we believe that protecting children and adopting public policies to ensure their rights, namely their right to education - which in my view is a vital pnority - , are not only ethical and normative imperatives but the only way to build a more just society of solidarity, guarantee economic development and strengthen democracy and the sense of citizenship.

The defence of children's rights is a fundamental aspect of Portugal's foreign policy within the framework of intemational co-operation, in particular within our closest family which is the European Union, but also within the United Nations and, naturally, in the context of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries and the IberoAmerican Community, to which Portugal belongs and of which it is a committed member.

Our presence here at this Special Session expresses our firm determination to continue contributing actively to the universal achievement of the rights of children both at home and internationally.

Which is why we are pleased to highlight the participation of children and young people from all over the world, including Portugal, in this Summit. As we see it, the participation of these young people is undeniably symbolic. More than just a symbolic gesture, however, it expresses the solemn acknowledgement that children and young people are citizens and activé participants in the construction of our societies.

I will end by addressing a very special word to the children taking part in this Special Session. They are the true recipients of our labours and concerns. I want you to understand that each day our destiny is played out in the effort to give our children and our young people a fit world. I also want you to know that I will do everything possible to build "a world for the children of men who were themselves never children", as the Portuguese writer Soeiro Pereira Gomes so eloquently stated.

Thank you.