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U.N. Children’s Summit Opens

May 8, 2002

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ The statistics are disheartening: 150 million children are malnourished; nearly 11 million die before their fifth birthday and some 300,000 are fighting in wars.

More than a decade after nations agreed to set standards for treatment of the world’s children, delegates gathering in New York for a U.N. summit say there is still much work to be done to protect future generations.

The meeting, which begins Wednesday, finds the United States still at odds with other nations over family planning, children’s rights, and ``reproductive health″ which some conservatives interpret as advocating abortion.

The summit brings together about 3,000 delegates from more than 180 countries _ including about 60 world leaders and 400 children _ along with 3,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations. They will be joined by leading figures from business, the arts, and religion, from Microsoft’s Bill Gates to East Timorese Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos X. Belo and actor Roger Moore.

Several youths will address the General Assembly. One of them, 17-year-old Nawaz Ali of India’s Kashmir region, said he will ask nations to better defend children’s right to an education.

The children of his mountain village must hike eight miles, often through deep snow, to get to school. The region’s Islamic insurgency has made getting an education even more exhausting and precarious.

``I remember quiet days when children walked to school peacefully, without fear,″ said Nawaz. ``Now, sometimes, when we hear the loud booms, we must run for our lives.″

The U.N. meeting, a special session of the General Assembly, had been scheduled for Sept. 18, but was postponed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

It will review the successes and failures in meeting 27 goals set by the 1990 World Summit for Children and set new priorities and goals for the next 15 years on issues ranging from health and education to the tragedies of AIDS orphans, child soldiers and children trafficked for prostitution and labor.

Experts say there has been progress since 1990: More children are in school than ever before, polio has nearly been eradicated and there are 3 million fewer child deaths per year.

``Children are better off today than they were 10 years ago,″ said Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

But hunger, disease and a lack of education _ especially for girls _ remain persistent problems, and some groups wonder how much the U.N. conference will be able to accomplish. A coalition of more than 100 international organizations known as the Child Rights Caucus warned Tuesday that the summit is in danger of simply ushering in another decade of broken promises.

``Millions of children are today denied basic rights and suffer unconscionable abuse because governments have failed to live up to their commitments,″ said Bill Bell of Save The Children UK, a British humanitarian organization.

Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch said the United States has tried to sidestep the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was intended to be the global standard for protecting the rights of children.

It has been ratified by 191 countries _ all nations except the United States and Somalia. The Clinton administration signed the convention but never submitted it for Senate ratification because a number of groups argued that it infringed on the rights of parents and was inconsistent with state and local laws. The Bush administration has also taken no action.

A U.S. official said the United States cannot accept language saying the convention is ``the standard″ for the rights of children ``since we’re not a party.″

Bellamy told AP: ``There has to be some agreement that will recognize the strong commitment of all 191 countries that have ratified but gives the U.S. an out. They haven’t found quite the language on that, but they’re getting closer, I’m told.″

Becker said the United States is also a major obstacle to agreement on the rights of adolescents to sexual and reproductive health education and services.

A U.S. official said all delegates have agreed privately that ``health services″ doesn’t mean abortion, but the United States wants this said in a footnote to the meeting’s final document.

As part of preparations for the summit, on Tuesday the U.N. Security Council heard children from Liberia, Bosnia and other conflict zones talk about how war has scarred their lives.

``What was done to me could have turned me into a monster,″ said China, a demobilized child soldier who spent 11 years fighting in Uganda.

She asked countries to better protect children from conflict. If not, she said, ``there will be so many monsters tomorrow that you’ll ask yourselves where they all came from.″

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