Mr. President:

We have heard them before. They appear in various United Nations and other documents. Here are a few of them: "Put children first." "A good start for every child."

And "First call for children." These are not mere slogans. They are principles that my delegation wholeheartedly endorses. So, let me begin with children.

With your permission, Mr. President, I would like to read the following short message from His Excellency President Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, who is unable to be present here today, to the child delegates attending this Special Session. I quote:

"Distinguished child delegates, this is your session. The Heads of State and Government are here to support you and your right to a better future; your right to survival and happiness. This support takes the form of an assessment of what we have achieved, and failed to achieve, and to measure how far we have translated the lofty goals we had set ourselves eleven years ago, for our children. We are here also to make a new pledge to work harder on the solemn commitments we had made to protect your rights and welfare and those of children everywhere. We are here because we still believe that your well-being requires political action at the highest level of every country." Unquote

Mr. President, Your Excellencies Distinguished delegates,

It is that at a UN General Assembly Special Session devoted to children I should pay tribute to the work of an agency that has been in the forefront of the effort to create a world fit for children.. From an agency established to provide care and support to children in one comer of the globe more than half a century ago, UNICEF has become the foremost organization for the rights and well-being of children worldwide. We salute the Executive Director and the thousands of local and international organizations, as well as those in the private sector, who are working assiduously to create a world fit for children.

UNICEF has identified ten principles for improving the lives of children and adolescents worldwide. These principles, in the view of my delegation, are crucial for developing our programmes for children in the next decade. One of them is that we must listen to children.

Mr. President, we in Sierra Leone have been trying to listen to our children. Indeed, we have received inspiration for our statement today from a child, a Sierra Leonean child who has articulated the plight as well as the aspirations of the approximately two million child survivors of a brutal rebel war in my country.

As survivors one would have expected the children of Sierra Leone to highlight "protecting children from war" as the number one objective on the list of ten UNICEF principles listed in a worldwide poll in connection with this Special Session. Considering that thousands of Sierra Leonean children had been abducted, drugged, armed and forced to serve as combatants, and knowing that hundreds of their young sisters and brothers were victims of merciless and deliberate amputations, one would have expected the children of Sierra Leone to tell us that their primary objective is the need to protect children from war, violence and exploitation. Rather, Mr. President, distinguished delegates, we found out from listening that for the children of Sierra Leone the two most important objectives are "the eradication of poverty," and "the need to invest in children."

Eleven years ago, we in Sierra Leone embarked on an ambitious National Plan of Action, a plan based on the goals and targets of the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children, and the Plan of Action adopted by the World Summit for Children. Unfortunately, the prolonged rebel war compelled us to divert resources to emergency and related humanitarian programmes. This has posed constraints on our capacity to meet the targets of the National Plan of Action. It has also reduced our capacity to implement relevant provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Nevertheless, Mr. President, we take pride in the fact that the main targets and beneficiaries of the emergency programmes have been children. This is consistent with the principle that children need special protection in situations of armed conflict. The recent establishment of a National Commission for War-Affected Children also attests to our determination to focus attention on this group of young people. In this connection we acknowledge with gratitude the important role played by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict, Ambassador Olara Otunnu in setting up the Commission. We have also initiated action to establish a Child Rights Commission with full responsibility for ensuring that a Child Rights Bill becomes a reality within the laws of Sierra Leone.

As a result of our Primary Health Care Strategy, we have achieved slight reductions in infant mortality and under-five mortality rates. We have also witnessed some positive results in the area of child immunization. President Kabbah personally supported the mass vaccination of children against polio during the special National Immunization Days, as did members of his cabinet. The campaign was conducted under difficult circumstances, but they were a success. Last October, at Lungi just outside our capital, President Kabbah together with the Presidents of Mali and Nigeria and the Regional Directors of WHO, UNICEF and the Rotary International launched the synchronized National Immunization Days in the ECOWAS sub-region.

Mr. President, global statistics show an overall improvement in the health of children under five years old. According to the Secretary-General's report "We the Children", there has been a reduction in the number of deaths among children from diarrhea, polio and other childhood illnesses. We are told that this year, three million fewer children will die than a decade ago; polio has been brought to the brink of eradication, and ninety million newborn babies will be protected each year from significant loss of hearing disability.

Mr. President, these developments should not go unnoticed. In the global context they should not be ignored. However, for us in Africa, the least developed region of the world, where children are still the most vulnerable and disadvantaged population group, we can only take note of these global figures and the improving condition.

The reason is that for us the statistics are much bleaker. The challenges identified in the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children, especially for Africa, remain as daunting as they were some eleven years ago when Heads of States met in this Assembly. The situation of our children is still intolerable.

Mr. President, the rebel war in Sierra Leone was the main inhibiting factor in our effort to meet the targets. This notwithstanding, we are convinced that Sierra Leone and other developing countries would have achieved much more for our children in the past decade if the international community had fulfilled its commitment, the commitment to assist us in reducing poverty, at least by five per cent. Let us make no mistake about it. There is a direct linkage between poverty reduction and the protection of the rights and welfare of the child. Failure to meet the targets of poverty reduction programmes is reflected, and will always be reflected in the status of children.

At the Millennium Summit, and from this very rostrum, President Kabbah spoke of the need for the international community to adapt and equip itself to deal with the new manifestations of the perennial problems of human insecurity and underdevelopment. He suggested that action by the Security Council to address armed conflict must be followed by more innovative responses by our development partners, in particular the international financial and development institutions.

Today, in the context of this Special Session on Children, I should emphasize that children should be the main target of such responses. In other words, if indeed we really want to put children first, the strategy that we in Sierra Leone advocate is one that is essentially child-centred.

The answer to our problems for improving the health, basic education and nutritional needs of our children is the mobilization of new and additional resources at all levels, especially at the international level.

Mr. President, I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the children of Sierra Leone and other least developed countries, to renew the appeal for the cancellation of all debts, for our children's sake. Let us remember that when we speak of funding for HIPC, we do so on behalf of our children; that when we call upon developed countries that have not yet reached the target of 0.7% of their GNP for overall ODA, to intensify their effort to achieve the agreed target, we do so in particular on behalf of our children.

I should add that we in Sierra Leone acknowledge that it is the primary responsibility of our country to set its own priorities and targets, and to mobilize national resources for improving the livelihood of our people, especially children. However, assistance from our international development and trading partners can make a difference.

Mr. President, we have listened to the children of Sierra Leone. They have a Children's Forum which they say should be their own centre for advocacy for such issues as child protection, drug abuse HIV-AIDS, street children, the special needs of ex-child combatants, peace and education. Like children of other countries they would like to become more involved in decision-making concerning their rights and welfare. They even say they want a Children's Desk in Ministries such as Health, Development Planning, Education and Youth. We are giving these ideas serious consideration.

As my delegation sees it, it is not enough to listen to our children. It is not enough to say, "leave no child behind." It is certainly not enough to give them a voice in this Special Session taking place in the largest multilateral forum in world, or to promise them participation in all matters pertaining to their welfare. In the final analysis, what matters most is what we actually do for our children. The Special Session is about action, action on behalf of children.

My delegation is pleased that after lengthy and intensive negotiations under the leadership of Ambassador Patricia Durrant of Jamaica, supported by the Permanent Representatives of Bangladesh and Germany, we now have a Plan of Action that is appropriately named "A World Fit for Children," ready for adoption at this session.

We pledge our commitment to every positive move in that direction, and to every clause in that document.

I thank you Mr. President.