The Ultimate Priority Revisited|
by Lorraine Simone
It's been 10 years since the World Summit For Children took place at the United Nations. It's time to revisit and to keep alive the purpose and spirit of the Children's Summit. Prior to the Summit... I attended a vigil with nearly 800 of my neighbors to hear the then Mayor of Southampton, Mayor Spooner, along with Peter Jennings of ABC News, Kati Marton, Linda Bird Francke, and others to talk about the needless deaths of 40,000 children a day throughout the world. This was only one of thousands of worldwide vigils held to demonstrate support for the efforts of world leaders who called the World Summit for Children at the United Nations for the purpose of focusing attention on children's special needs.
(The following is reprinted from The Southampton Press.)
This Summit was as important an event at the U.N. as previous summits on economics and peace. How proud I was to learn that the host city, New York, led the nation in its efforts to support the gathering at the UN by participating in "Moments For Children". At 8 P.M. on Saturday, September 29, 1990, lights were dimmed on theater marquees, bridges, and landmark buildings. It was thrilling to hear the bells sounding at St. Patrick's Cathedral and over 100 other churches in the City. Radio stations dedicated songs for children. Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles paused for a moment of tribute during a live performance at Radio City Music Hall. City cab drivers showed their support for the efforts of the summit by honking their horns. The Mets at Shea Stadium and the Giants at Giant Stadium also participated with programs for their fans to pay tribute to the children of the world.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, dignitaries from over 70 nations were being welcomed into the General Assembly Hall. Many Non-Government Organization (NGO) leaders representing Rotary International, Save the Children, UNICEF, Amnesty International, RESULTS, and the International Council of Women, to name a few, were also present. Security was very tight in and around the UN, and consequently, the building was closed to the general public for the length of the summit. There were 1,500 press and media people from around the world assigned to cover the meetings. We crowded into the conference rooms beneath the Assembly floor and took our positions at typewriters, computers, cameras and microphones.
So, what did it all mean, that weekend, a decade ago, when the eyes of the world were focused on the World Summit For Children?
In spite of the rising tensions over the Mideast crisis, the atmosphere within the gray stone walls of the UN was one of cooperation. Everyone agreed that children all over the world are in dire need of additional resources for longer, better lives. What better way to understand our connectedness to each other than through the experience of childhood? And so, with this bond formed, the heads of state, looking particularly relaxed and sincere, displayed an air of community, purpose and hope that transcended national borders.
After opening remarks by the organizers of the summit, Prime Minister Ingmar Carson of Sweden, President Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, President Traore of Mali, Canada's Prime Minister Mulrooney, and the welcoming statement by UN Secretary-General, Xavier Perez de Cuellar, President George Bush announced his desire to make education the primary work of the 50 million children worldwide that do not attend school. He reminded his colleagues that "Progress begins when we empower people, not bureaucracies."
Each leader's speech, though focused on the unique needs of their particular country, touched on issues of global concern. President Carlos Perez of Venezuela commented on the plight of "street children" in his country and suggested to his distinguished associates what great strides toward alleviating these conditions could be made by allocating just 10 percent of global disarmament appropriations to the needs of children. Chairman of the council of Ministers, Vitaly Masol of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, reminded the assembly that the accident at Chernobyl exposed 60,000 children to high levels of radiation causing unspeakable misery. Japan's Prime Minister, Toshiki Kaifu, stressed the importance of educating girls. He commented that the mother is the child's first teacher. How unfortunate for children that women comprise 65 percent of the one billion people in the world who are illiterate! Brazil's President Fernando Collor de Mello emphasized the environment when he linked poverty to the degradation of Nature.
The world leader who I most enjoyed listening to and whose remarks received an unprecedented thunderous applause, both during and after her commentary, was the then prime minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher. She was the only woman to address the assembly. Mrs. Thatcher focused on the family because, she said, "The family is the dominant influence on the child." She added that government help is not meant to substitute for parental responsibility, and parenthood is for life. With that, Mrs. Thatcher continued to stress the importance of "preventing absent parents, mostly men, from walking away from their children." She reminded the assembly that economic progress alone doesn't solve human problems: "We need to give children fun and laughter because it's important to build happy memories, because they stay with children all their lives... reminding them of the warmth... and togetherness of home." This, Thatcher concluded, can only be accomplished in a setting of peace and support.
One by one, I heard the leaders of the world admit the frightening truth that the systems that had governed the way we live our lives on this planet for so many years were no longer working. At last we were free! Finally, the lie that had perpetuated the denial of failure was now exposed. What a sense of relief, knowing that our world leaders were aware of the problems that we citizens of the world complain about so often. Now that the truth was known, we could finally get down to the business of re-establishing systems that could work for today's complex and troubled world. For the first time, in a long time, I felt hopeful even in the midst of the painful and troublesome truth that was finally revealed within these hallowed halls!
While heads of state deliberated in the General Assembly Hall, other distinguished guests held news conferences elsewhere in the United Nations. Actress Audrey Hepburn, and actor Peter Ustinov, in their capacities as goodwill ambassadors to UNICEF, along with entertainer Julio Inglesias, Mrs. Julie Belafonte, and others spoke to the press and to a group of very inquisitive children. They shared their personal observations of children's issues around the world. Everyone agreed that affluent societies, as well as developing countries, suffer from the tragedies of street children, suicide, drugs, the spread of AIDS, high infant mortality, inadequate pre-natal care, illiteracy, violence and racism. The children in the audience were asked to return to their homes and schools with the promise of hope that this summit created for the children of the world. They were urged to cultivate and exercise compassion, brotherhood, sisterhood, and justice, challenging them to learn more about the issues addressed at the summit, and to support the work being done to enforce the Declaration of Children that was signed by the countries in attendance.
We can all take this advice to heart. The purpose of the summit was to draw attention to the issues confronting children. Now we must begin to take action to alleviate the evils the children of the world face today. Although all the countries in attendance ratified the Declaration of Children on Sunday, September 30, many nations, including the United States, still have not signed the "Proclamation for the Rights of the Child". This proclamation will enforce laws to protect, care for, educate, and secure a better future for children here in America as well as around the world.
To date, the United States has refused to sign this document, citing two specific areas of contention-one being the prohibition of the death penalty for minors, and the other concerns protection for the fetus.
No one expected the summit organizers to come up with the perfect solution to the problems of the world, or did we? What they did manage to do was to draft the "proclamation for the Rights of the Child," thereby setting up a framework in which plans for implementing laws governing the myriad of issues brought to global attention by the summit so they could be systematically and successfully dealt with. Our leaders need to know that we support the ground-breaking work this summit accomplished, and that we want them to follow the natural progression of this work by enforcing the rights of children everywhere. Let's begin to help the children by utilizing these suggestions. Today, 40,000 children didn't ask us for perfection, they asked for protection and we weren't ready to save them.
Many of the world leaders who were present at the World Summit a decade ago have faded into the anals of history to be judged by future generations on their performance and merits. Some of the countries represented at that time no longer exist. What remains with us is the moment in time when children were the priority of the world when we dreamed of decreasing illiteracy by 50 percent, decreasing child mortality by 28 percent, and decreasing the number of street children by 40 percent before the end of the century. True, we have fallen short of those goals yet the dream for the children lives on, the work continues, and your support of children everywhere, whether in your family, neighborhood, community, country, or anywhere in the world, must continue to be a priority. The children we save today will inherit the Earth we make for them tomorrow. Our representatives in Washington need to know that we want the United States to lead the world in its vision for the rights of children, as our founding fathers led the world in the unfolding vision for the rights of all. I'm reminded of the words of France's Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, who said at the Summit, "Protecting childrens' dignity is a measure of our own."
Moonfire Meeting House
1691 County Rd. 39
Southampton, New York 11968
phone / fax 631-287-9000