8 May 2002


Press Briefing


United States Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, Wade Horn, and other members of the United States' delegation to the special session, briefed correspondents today on their country's commitment to children and their hopes for the session's outcome document.

Other participants in the press conference, which was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the United States to the United Nations, were: Mike Dennis, Attorney-Adviser, Office of Legal Adviser, Department of State; Jackie Sanders, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of International Organization Affairs; and Anne Peterson, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Global Health, United States Agency for International Development.

Participants turned directly to questions.  One correspondent asked whether the United States was seeking to change the language agreed at Cairo, Beijing and the follow-up Conferences, to specifically exclude any interpretation by any country that might include abortion, whereas in the past, that issue was left up to individual countries?

No, said Mr. Dennis, who had been described as a negotiator.  The negotiations were ongoing and that issue had not been resolved.  The United States' position was that it was willing to refer to prior Conferences as long as the language was consistent with what had been used in those Conferences.  "We've indicated that we've been willing to take into account what was said in prior Conferences", he added.

In a follow-up question, the correspondent asked why then there was a problem.  What was the United States seeking to do that had the other countries and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) so upset?

Mr. Dennis responded that that was always a fairly controversial issue in negotiations.  From his country's standpoint, a document on children should not be focusing on abortion and "things like that", but on positive things relating to children.

What were the problems in terms of the Convention on the Rights of the Child? another correspondent asked. 

As far as the Convention and its references in the outcome document, Mr. Dennis said that all the United States was asking was that it not indicate that the Convention was binding as far as the United States was concerned, because it was not a party to it and it did not have any legal obligations with respect to it.  The draft document spoke about the historical significance of the Convention, the fact that it was the most widely ratified human rights instrument in history.  The United States was willing to agree to that -- to the fact that the Convention contained a set of legal norms concerning the protection of children and promoting their well-being.

He said his position had been to allow the Convention to be promoted in the document by recognizing its historical significance.  His position had never been to indicate that the Convention could not be mentioned.  For the United States, however, it did not constitute the standard.  At the same time, domestic laws

reflected many of the principles and values reflected in the Convention.  But, from a legal standpoint, it was not a party to it and, therefore, had no legal obligations with respect to it. 

Mr. Horn added that regardless of the United States' status with respect to the Convention, the country had shown "dramatic progress in improving things for kids in the United States" in the last decade.  Over the last five years, it had seen the largest drop in child poverty in any five-year period in United States history.  The child poverty rate among African American children in America was now at its lowest level ever recorded.  There had been increasing progress on an already very good performance with respect to childhood immunizations, for example.  There had also been drops in the number of children that had been abused or neglected over the last five years in the country. 

"We believe that we have a very forward-thinking and important and significant agenda when it comes to improving child well-being in the United States", he added.  A debate was currently under way on the reauthorization of its major welfare legislation, which had been passed in 1996.  The current Administration had indicated in its proposal that the well-being of children should be the central theme within welfare.  That was the first time a proposal had been made to make improving children's well-being the overarching purpose of the welfare system.

Another correspondent asked whether the United States wanted a specific reference in the outcome document on abstinence as a preferred sexual strategy for adolescents or adolescent counselors, and, if so, how would it be phrased and where in the document should it be?

Mr. Dennis said there was a proposal right now concerning abstinence and the United States had requested its inclusion as one of the elements for consideration.  The document was in a "very fluid" state of negotiations, and "it is unclear exactly what treatment, if any, will be given to that issue", he said.

What is the United States preference? the correspondent asked, and what specific language had been requested?  "We've asked for its inclusion", Mr. Dennis said.  "We've asked that abstinence be one of the matters that's promoted as far as children are concerned.  I can't give you the exact language."

Mr. Horn added that it was the view of the Bush Administration that abstinence was, in fact, the "best choice" for youth, as that was the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.  And, that was certainly a very clear policy statement of the Bush Administration. 

Asked how much emphasis would be placed on abstinence over other forms of contraception, Mr. Dennis said that that was just a very complex negotiation.  As he had indicated, the United States had supported that language, and other countries had asked for it.  It was just unclear what the outcome was going to be.

Ms. Peterson said that, from the public health perspective, she was trying to prevent many diseases and teenage pregnancy, both internationally and on the domestic front.  There was very clear evidence that abstinence -– delaying the onset of sexual activity – could be done and was an integral part of successful programmes.  Uganda's AIDS epidemic had really changed its thinking.  In that country, there had been a delay of an average of over two years before the onset of sexual activity. 

On the domestic front, she said she was seeing the same thing, and that was beginning to reverse the teen pregnancy rates.  There was a youth population quite willing to use abstinence as a modality to protect themselves.  Abstinence was not the only answer and not the answer for every youth.  But, it had an appropriate role within the spectrum of implementation strategies.

Replying to another question, Ms. Peterson said if one was married, there were few expectations of abstinence, but the Administration would strongly promote faithfulness within marriage.  It encouraged delaying the onset of sexual activity, increasing the marriage and first-birth age because of their possible adverse health consequences. 

Did the panel think that most Americans supported the positions taken by the United States at the Conference, or was the delegation catering to a certain right-wing constituency? a correspondent asked.  Secondly, with much of the Conference devoted to the developing world, did the panel think anything would be done about declining official development assistance (ODA)?

Mr. Dennis said that, as far as the outcome document was concerned, his Government's position strongly reflected the values of Americans.  He was disappointed in the outcome document.  He had been looking for advances on a series of fronts. 

He said he had hoped there would be a strong emphasis in the outcome text on protecting children in situations of armed conflict and in the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography areas.  "And we were very disappointed with the outcome document in both areas", he added.  It was a very difficult negotiating process here, because all States had to agree, and often it was the lowest common denominator that won out.  The United States' positions were very forward leaning with respect to those issues.  Unfortunately, it had not been able to see them reflected in the Conference document.

Addressing the ODA question, Ms. Peterson said that the President had announced in Monterrey, Mexico, a few weeks ago that it was dramatically increasing its development assistance.  One of the three main tenets of his programme was investment in people and education, for which children would benefit greatly.  She added that the resources had been increasing regularly for foreign aid.  Her Government would be devoting $1.8 billion out of United States Agency for International Development, alone, for all of the health and education initiatives in the coming year.  So, there had been a very concerted interest in increasing efforts to address children's needs in health and education internationally.

Mr. Dennis said he hoped for a consensus document by Friday, earlier rather than later, responding to a question about his expectations.  The issue was very important for all governments and, hopefully, consensus could be reached. 

Under what circumstances would the United States' disappointment over negotiations in the outcome document become so great that it might duplicate what it did at the Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, and walk away? another correspondent asked.  Mr. Dennis said he was hoping for consensus.  "I think Durban was a different set of circumstances than what we have here", he added.

How could the divide be bridged between the "lucky" American child and the indigenous children in the United States? another correspondent asked.

Mr. Wade said the Government would do all it could within the context of the law to ensure that children of immigrants were afforded the kinds of services and support necessary for their favourable development.  The largest rural education programme in the United States was a "Head Start" programme, which he oversaw.  Immigrant children had access to that programme, a good part of which was to try to help them with the development of their English skills, in order to be on more equal footing with native-born children. 

Through another programme, President Bush was providing information to childhood providers, pre-school teachers and parents about new research findings that showed how to maximize early cognitive development, particularly early literacy skills.  The idea was to get as many immigrant children as possible to school, healthy and ready to learn.  The Government had a pretty good record of opening up those services to immigrant children.

Ms. Peterson, recalling her days as State Health Commissioner of Virginia, said that in Arlington and Alexandria, alone, there were 132 different languages in one of the counties, and 92 in another, among people coming into the school system.  It was challenging to bring in that many different people, cultures and languages and be able to service them well.  Most State health departments provided services to mothers and children regardless of income or immigrant status. 

Asked what kind of language the United States was seeking in terms of pornography and the recruitment of child soldiers, Mr. Dennis said that, regarding child prostitution and pornography, many countries tied their criminalization requirements to the age of sexual consent, which might be 13 years old or so.  It was a priority concern of the United States to raise that standard to age 18. 

He said he was hoping for a clear statement in the document that States needed to criminalize child prostitution and pornography under age 18.  But, the language in the text on that question had been vague and ambiguous.  He had also hoped that there would be clear language about ways to rehabilitate children that had been removed from the worst forms of child labour, and there was only a very general discussion about it in the document. 

With respect to children in armed conflict, he said his country was looking to set up an international norm that would prohibit non-State actors, or armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a State, from recruiting under the age of 18.  He had also hoped for some discussion about how the international community might cooperate in that regard, but unfortunately, the document did not begin to address that very important issue.

Another correspondent asked for a response to the view expressed by many non-governmental organizations that the United States' delegation had been "hijacked by the ultra-conservative ideological right" and was using the session to impose that view on the rest of the world, and, in the process, had basically rewritten 10 years worth of agreements. 

Mr. Dennis reiterated that he was hoping for a consensus text.  He would have to see and hear the comments from the non-governmental organizations, but he had not thought that that was the case at all.

He added his country had promoted very forward-thinking policies with respect to the protection of children.  Its laws in that regard were the strongest in the world and it had tried to bring the laws of other countries up to those standards to prevent children from becoming involved in prostitution, pornography

or other illicit activities or hazardous work.  He had tried very hard to have the document reflect those values.  He added, "it's very difficult to do that in this type of negotiation".

Replying to second question by the correspondent about whether the United States might issue reservations rather than block the entire text, he said he hoped the negotiated text was consistent with United States law.  The 18 March text was one he could support and he hoped that would be the outcome. 

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For information media. Not an official record.