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African Kids Challenge U.N. Leaders

May 9, 2002

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ No adult has ever spoken to King Letsie III of Lesotho quite so bluntly, nor to the leaders of Mozambique and Mauritania _ let alone a child.

But at a rare dialogue between African leaders and African children on the second day of the U.N. children’s summit Thursday, the words from the youngsters were sharp and implacable.

``We must put an end to this demagoguery,″ 15-year-old Adam Maiga from Mali told the presidents and prime ministers. ``You have parliaments, but they are used as democratic decorations,″ she accused.

For Joseph Tamale from Uganda, the big issue was the huge debts owed by many African countries.

``You get loans that will be paid in 20 to 30 years. It will be up to us to pay for them. And we have nothing to pay them with, because when you get the money, you embezzle it, you eat it,″ said the 12-year-old, his message greeted by a round of applause from all _ leaders included.

Children from across the world’s poorest continent relentlessly challenged their leaders Thursday, demanding better health care, education, government, and respect for children’s rights.

It was an unusual session for all, including Prime Minister Cheikh El Avia Ould Mohamed Khouna, who was dubbed ``the one from Mauritania″ by the teen-age moderator, Fatoumatta Ndure, of Gambia.

Asked after the grilling whether he’d ever been addressed in such harsh, direct terms, the king of Lesotho said with a chuckle: ``It’s the first time.″

President Joaquim Alberto Chissano of Mozambique and the Mauritanian premier both said they, too, were unaccustomed to such frank speech. But Chissano said he was heartened by the intelligence and knowledge the children had shown. ``It proves that the future will be bright.

Lipsy Ndwandwe, a 17-year-old from Swaziland, had just one thing to say.

``We as children of Africa came together and agreed on things, but you leaders that we are supposed to look up to are not able to do that,″ she said.

Delegates were in fact still negotiating on the summit’s final document. Meanwhile, top officials from the 189 U.N. member states stepped to the podium of the General Assembly hall, one by one, to speak about their programs for children.

The United States remained at odds with other nations over language on family planning, children’s rights, and ``reproductive health,″ which some conservatives interpret as advocating abortion.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, 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 document.

In a new controversy, some Arab and Islamic nations were pressing for a special reference to Palestinian children in the document _ over Israel’s objection.

At one roundtable, government leaders, U.N. officials and the two children present emphasized the importance of education.

Mongolia’s Prime Minister Nambar Enkhbayar, a co-chair of the roundtable, challenged world leaders to find money to put every child in school as readily as they spend funds to buy arms.

``We know how to find money for military expenses,″ said Mongolia’s Prime Minister Nambar Enkhbayar. ``Now we have to find money for our children. ... It’s time for us to find money for education for every child living in this world.″

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo pledged to transfer money from defense to children.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu, the other co-chair, said participants recognized that education is a basic human right and one of the keys to eradicating poverty, and spoke about laws making primary education free and compulsory _ a key U.N. goal for 2015.

``More importantly,″ he said, they stressed the need for children to be taught in a safe environment, with well-trained teachers and well-equipped classrooms, though many delegations underlined the lack of financial resources to do this.

At a panel discussion, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers said a policy of zero-tolerance has to be set up in refugee camps to avoid any sexual abuse of children. Such incidents have been reported by the refugee agency and Save the Children UK in camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The gathering, which ends Friday, is reviewing the successes and failures in meeting 27 goals set by the 1990 World Summit for Children, and is expected to set new priorities and goals for the next 15 years.

What counted most for 12-year-old Tamale is that leaders of his continent listened to the grievances of Africa’s children. The leaders, he said, ``have a policy by which they listen, but do not respond.″

However, he said he was hopeful. ``I believe that if both generations work together we shall make Africa a better continent.″

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