10 May 2002


Press Briefing


Representatives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the Global March against Child Labour this morning expressed their concern about the state of negotiations on the outcome document of the special session on children, at a Headquarters press conference sponsored by the Netherlands.

Speaking to the press were Head of the Global March, Kailash Satyarthi, and ICFTU’s Head of Campaigns, Tim Noonan, who said that from all accounts non-governmental organizations were not part of the negotiating process.  While the negotiations continued and there was real progress on some issues, they had expected a more concrete outcome as far as elimination of the worst forms of child labour and basic education goals were concerned.  They also pointed out that a small number of governments, some of them quite influential, seemed to be moving away from multilateral agreed standards and the norms of international law.

“As it stands now, the outcome document is a mixed bag”, Mr. Noonan said.  “Some very good work has been done here, it is very important that the international community is listening to the voices of young people, but ... some real genuine concerns underline some of the negotiations that we understand are still going on.”

A small minority of governments appeared to be using the event to roll back the agreed commitments and legal standards that had been set, he said, starting with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Some governments were saying that the goal was not to eliminate child labour, but to take a few steps on the issue. International law, however, said that child labour should be eliminated.  One of the hot points of the ongoing negotiations was the children’s and young people’s right to information regarding reproductive health issues.  There were also strong signs that a small minority of governments were not prepared to countenance that access to information.

Figures released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) earlier this month showed that over 200 million children in the world were involved in child labour and not getting proper schooling, he continued.  Over 100 million children had no access to education whatsoever.  Some 180 million children were involved in what was known as the worst forms of labour, as defined by the ILO, including sexual exploitation, slavery and bonded labour, and forcible recruitment into military groups.  That was not only a fundamental abuse of their human rights, but also one of the most significant barriers to economic and social development around the world.  Unless comprehensive action was taken by national governments and the international community, such an essential development building block as education would never be put into place.

Too many countries were saying, “We will wait for development, and once we have achieved that, we will provide education for our children”, he said.  Finance ministries around the world were telling the poorest people that they had to pay for education out of their own pocket.  That put families in an impossible position and put children on the path to work.  As things stood now, there was no chance that the international community would reach the goal of universal primary education.

Mr. Satyarthi said that 2002 was a litmus test for over 120 countries that had signed the ILO Convention on the worst forms of child labour, agreeing to eliminate such phenomena as child slavery, prostitution, hazardous work conditions, and use of children in armed conflict.  As for the education goals, two years ago, participants in the United Nations Forum on Education in Dakar had agreed to ensure free, quality compulsory education for all children.  This year, governments were supposed to draw their national plans in implementation of those goals.  Also at Dakar, international financial institutions had made big promises to ensure additional resources for basic education. 

He said that the Global March strongly believed that the world was not too poor to give the basic birth rights to freedom and learning to all its children.  The money required was nothing but four days of military expense -– some 0.02 per cent of global income.  It was but one fifth of what the United States spent on tobacco, or Europe on ice cream.  Reiterating what Nelson Mandela had said, he stressed that the world should not live with the legacy of broken promises.  The civil society and the children themselves were watching the governments, which should come up with more concrete figures of filling the financing gaps for those countries that had come up with their national action plans, as agreed upon about two weeks back.

Asked to identify the countries supporting and opposing the child labour and education issues, Mr. Noonan said that, although not part of negotiating process, he had seen some public statements from the representatives of Canada that were a cause of great concern as far as child labour was concerned.  There seemed to be an attitude that some marginal actions could alleviate the situation.  On the broader question of concern about international standards, he said that the Government of the United States was “not playing as positive a role as we had hoped”, in particular, as far as the status of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was concerned.  There was also concern over the issue of reproductive rights.

To a question about India’s reluctance to address child labour issues,

Mr. Satyarthi said that, while he felt that India had the largest number of child slaves and bonded labourers in the world, the country itself had been denying the existence of such a problem.  India was saying that it was against such phenomena, and by denying their existence it was escaping responsibility.

Mr. Noonan added that, since the signing of the ILO Convention on the worst forms of child labour, his organization was seeing some positive signs from the Government of India, and the ICFTU was deeply committed to working with that country and other governments.   However, South Asia, and in particular India, was the area where some of most egregious forms of child exploitation could be found.

Did that include countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh? a correspondent asked.

Mr. Noonan answered that, at the moment, Afghanistan represented a very special case, and it was not appropriate to point a finger at that country now.  Bangladesh was certainly known as a country with a large number of child labourers, many of whom were producing the best-known labels sold in the West.  Pakistan was another country that had serious problems, including bonded labour.  Massive problems of commercial sexual exploitation of children could be found

further in South-East Asia.  It was not a simple picture, however, and international agencies were involved in attempts to resolve the problems there.

Asked about the situation in Latin America, Mr. Satyarthi said that Brazil had a very good record, having implemented some innovative measures in recent years. 

Mr. Noonan added that he found the approach of many Latin American countries to be very progressive.  One of the countries to watch very closely was Argentina, where the economic crisis could lead to a deterioration of the school system and an increase in the number of children occupied in the labour market.  He did not think that the approach of international financial institutions was very constructive in that country.  People and social concerns should be at the centre of international efforts there.

To a series of questions about the desired contents of the outcome document, Mr. Noonan said the goal of universal education for children was achievable.  What he would like to see was a clear commitment to universal basic education and an absolute and unequivocal commitment to total elimination of child labour.  Governments needed to speak with one voice on those issues. 

As for the time frames, Mr. Satyarthi said that clear goals had been set in Dakar, which included a 50 per cent reduction of illiteracy by 2015 and gender discrimination in education by 2005.  It was possible to meet those goals, but real political will was needed to achieve that.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.