7 May 2002


Press Briefing


At a Headquarters press conference today on the eve of the start of the United Nations General Assembly special session on children, the United States came under harsh criticism for being one of only two countries in the world -– the second being Somalia -- that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Advocates for the Child Rights Caucus, made up over 100 national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world, accused the United States of being “a major obstacle” to agreement on two of the most controversial issues still being negotiated related to the Convention.

“The United States has tried to sideline the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the global standard for protecting the rights of children”, said Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch, adding that, with the exception of the United States and Somalia, 191 countries had ratified the Convention since 1989, making it the most widely ratified treaty in history.

Some 70 heads of State and government and more than 2,000 NGOs are participating in the events related to the special session on children, 8 to 10 May, which is expected to set new goals to benefit the world’s children for the coming 10 to 15 years, after evaluating the progress made since the last summit in 1990.

On both counts, Ms. Becker said, governments had performed poorly.  Many of the goals that were set out in 1990 had not been met, while statistics that had come out from the United Nations through the Secretary-General’s report for the special session painted a very grim picture.

Ms. Becker said the report made clear that over 125 million children were out of school; 250 million children were involved in child labour, including millions who were victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking; and 2 million children had died and up to 25 million had been uprooted by armed conflict in 10 years.  Ten million more died each year from malnutrition and preventable diseases.  On a daily basis, children suffered unconscionable abuses and were denied their rights, largely as a result of governments’ failure to live up to their promises and to their legal commitments.

She said that a significant reason why many of the goals from the 1990 Summit had not been met was the failure by governments to invest in children and allocate the necessary resources, particularly in the field of education.  “One of our biggest disappointments is governments’ failure to reaffirm the rights of children and their legal obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child”, she said.  “One the greatest advances since the 1990 World Summit on Children is that nearly every country in the world has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” 

Ms. Becker added that the Convention was “the logical starting place for any international plan of action for the children for the future”.  Yet, largely due to pressure from the United States, the Convention was being sidelined from the negotiations and was barely mentioned in the outcome document being negotiated.

Ms. Becker said the United States had also similarly tried to roll back international agreements regarding the right of adolescents to sexual and reproductive health, education and service.  “My understanding is that the Bush Administration has also said in the negotiations that they will not accept previously agreed language from previous conferences, such as the Beijing Conference on Women”, she said.  “They argue that the language was agreed under the previous administration and is not necessarily valid for the current one.  We’re disappointed that in both cases, the United States is playing a negative obstructionist role.”

Bene Madunagu of Girls Power Initiative/International Sexual and Reproductive Rights Coalition said it was “appalling” that the United States, under the Bush Administration, was advancing retrogressive and conservative ideology.  “This is an ideology that is deliberately creating confusion and misconception that abstinence could be the strategy to deal with the problem of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS”, she said.

Ms. Madunagu told correspondents that such a proposition was capable of violating the rights to access of young people to comprehensive sexuality information and the education they needed to made responsible decisions concerning their sexuality, as well as to protect themselves.  She added that the United States position was also a “dangerous proposition coming from a country like the United States” and being shamelessly pushed to the detriment of young people in the developing countries, who are being devastated by the pandemic of HIV/AIDS and other forms of sexual abuse.

Another member of the Caucus, 17-year old Tom Burke, representing those under-18, said during the last three years that he had been involved in the special session process he had become “increasingly disappointed with the commitments, or frankly, the lack of commitments” that governments were making.

“The role of the United States in this is to me amazing”, he said.  “I cannot understand and I am dismayed by the position they are taking.  The way in which they are trying to dismantle the most universally ratified human rights treaty ever, is beyond my belief.  I just don’t understand how a civilized country can say ending poverty, and having access to information to make informed choices about children’s lives, about access to education and about the right for children to express themselves should not be included in this outcome document.”

He added that he firmly believed that that the rights of children across the globe continued to be violated.  “If we’re truly to create a world fit for children, we need to stop these violations.  We need to make sure that enough money is put in to make the Convention of the Child a reality.”  He added that another very important aspect for him was the implementation and follow up, because far too often governments made commitments and goals and five or ten years later there was no action.  That was what had happened since 1990.

In the question-and-answer session with correspondents that followed, all the Caucus speakers repeatedly charged that the United States attempted to “weaken” or altogether eliminate the wording or language in the outcome document related to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The speakers also accused the United States of trying to influence or “cause” other nations that had already ratified the Convention not proceed with its implementation to ratify it.

Asked by a correspondent if the United States was trying to remove references to sex education, Ms. Becker responded that the United States had proposed replacing the phrase “rights” of children to “well-being of the children”, which in her view was a throwback to the pre-1990s attitudes on how to deal with children.  On sexual and reproduction health, there was a debate around the word “services”.  The United States had specifically opposed the inclusion of the word “services” because it believed it was a code word for abortion.

The briefing was also attended and chaired by Yousef Hajjar of the Arab Resource Collective and Horacio Lejarraga from the Argentinean Society of Paediatrics.

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For information media. Not an official record.