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Teens Help Open UN Children’s Summit

May 9, 2002

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Two teen-age girls and Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the first U.N. children’s summit Wednesday by harshly criticizing grown-ups for creating a world where too many young people face poverty, war and disease.

Audrey Cheynut, a 17-year-old from Monaco, and Gabriela Azurudy Arrieta, a 13-year-old from Bolivia, read to the General Assembly from a statement adopted by nearly 400 youngsters from around the world at a forum earlier this week.

``We are not the sources of the problems,″ read Cheynut, her voice breaking with emotion. ``We are the resources that are needed to solve them.″

``We are the victims of exploitation and abuse. We are the street children. We are the children of war. We are the victims and orphans of HIV/AIDS. We are denied good quality education and health care,″ Arrieta told the hushed audience.

The girls fleeting appearance _ less than 10 minutes _ was the only time that young people will address the three-day special session of the U.N. General Assembly on children, attended by presidents, princes, sheiks and ministers from over 180 countries.

The pair followed Annan’s keynote address, which opened the three-day summit with a challenge to officials to invest the money and effort to ensure that the 2 billion young people growing up today can live in a peaceful world free of hunger and get a quality education.

``We, the grown-ups, have failed you deplorably...,″ Annan told the world’s children, noting that 33 percent of youngsters suffer from malnutrition before the age of five, 25 percent are not immunized, nearly 20 percent don’t attend school and far too many ``have seen violence that no child should ever see.″

``We, the grown-ups, must reverse this list of failures,″ he told the crowded U.N. General Assembly chamber. ``To the adults in this room, I would say: let us not make children pay for our failures any more.″

The statement read by Cheynut and Arrieta was adopted at a three-day Children’s Forum that ended Tuesday.

``We want a world fit for children, because a world fit for us is a world fit for everyone,″ read Arrieta, whose face could barely be seen over the podium. ``We are children whose voices are not being heard: it is time we are taken into account.″

Cheynut said children want protection for child refugees, free quality education, free HIV testing, environmental conservation and cancellation of their countries’ debts _ whose payment diverts money from children’s programs.

``The children of the world are misunderstood,″ she said. ``We are not expenses; we are investments. ... We are united by our struggle to make the world a better place for all. You call us the future, but we are also the present.″

The teen-agers were loudly applauded by the audience, which included presidents, prime ministers, sheiks and celebrities including actors Harry Belafonte and Roger Moore and former South African President Nelson Mandela, now 83, who Annan said was ``still working harder than anyone to give children a better future.″

More than two dozen leaders then addressed the plenary session, focusing on a wide variety of issues.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni brought a dozen girls to the podium at the end of his speech to underline the importance of girls’ education, saying ``this is my delegation.″ Vietnam’s Vice-President Nguyen Thi Binh denounced the plight of children in Iraq and Cuba _ both under sanctions. Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak stressed the need to help Palestinian children. Equatorial Guinea’s Prime Minister Candido Rivas warned against giving children liberties ``that go against morals.″

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson underlined President Bush’s policy of promoting sexual abstinence for young people.

``Recently, the United States has begun promoting healthy behaviors and right choices for young people. Our efforts include strengthening close parent-child relationships, encouraging the delay of sexual activity, and supporting abstinence education programs,″ he said.

The United States was still at odds with other nations over language in the summit’s final document on family planning, children’s rights, and ``reproductive health,″ which some conservatives interpret as advocating abortion.

``The U.S.′ position is holding up agreement on the issue of reproductive health,″ said Carol Bellamy, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

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

The General Assembly’s first special session on children is bringing together about 3,000 delegates _ including about 60 world leaders and more than 250 children _ along with 3,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations. It was originally scheduled to begin on Sept. 18, but was delayed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

It will review the successes and failures in meeting 27 goals set by the 1990 World Summit for Children _ which was not an official U.N. event _ and set new priorities and goals for the next 15 years on issues ranging from health and education to AIDS orphans, child soldiers, and children trafficked for prostitution and labor.

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